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Neymar out of Clasico after Barcelona lose patience

April 23, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona will not risk calling up star forward Neymar for the potential title decider with Real Madrid, the Spanish champions said on Sunday, just hours before El Clasico.

Neymar

The loss of the suspended Brazilian forward deals a big blow to Barcelona’s hopes of denying their fierce rivals a first La Liga crown in five years.

Barcelona appealed to Spain’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (TAD) late on Friday over Neymar’s three-game ban in the hope it would be frozen, which would have allowed him to take part in the must-win showdown at the Santiago Bernabeu.

But with the pivotal clash looming — kick-off is at 1845 GMT on Sunday — Barcelona said they were abandoning their bid to have Neymar available.

“Given the legal uncertainty of the lack of a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport with the game tonight less than 12 hours away, and to focus all attention on the sporting aspect, the club has decided not to call up Neymar,” an angry Barcelona statement said.

The Catalans said the TAD had created “a huge legal void”.

Neymar is in the middle of a suspension for his red card and subsequent sarcastic applause of the officials in Barca’s damaging 2-0 defeat to Malaga two weeks ago.

The club argue that until a ruling on the appeal is held, Neymar’s ban should be suspended and therefore allow him to feature at the Bernabeu.

“As a coach I am prepared to play with Neymar or without him,” manager Luis Enrique said on Saturday.

In the absence of a TAD ruling, Barca would have been taking an enormous risk by playing Neymar as they could have been sanctioned with a defeat for fielding an ineligible player.

Enrique says his last Clasico — he will leave Barcelona this summer — is a must-win: Madrid hold a three-point lead at the top with a game in hand on their rivals.

“Given how close it is to the end of the season it is a decisive weekend,” said Enrique.

“This time a Clasico can decide or almost decide the league or leave it very open. For us it is like a final, only a win will do.”

Madrid could be boosted by the return of Gareth Bale from injury, but the fact the Welshman may not be risked is a further sign that Real have far more room for error.

Bale has been sidelined by an inflammation of the muscles around where he suffered ligament damage in his right ankle that kept him out for three months earlier in the season.

“He will be with us on Sunday,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.

“You will see tomorrow what team we are going to start with.”

Should Bale not start, the on-form Isco is favourite to take his place, as he did for Madrid’s thrilling 4-2 Champions League win over Bayern Munich after extra-time in midweek.

Centre-backs Raphael Varane and Pepe are Madrid’s only injury absentees meaning Zidane is expected to name the same starting XI as against Bayern.

“There is a lot of tiredness, but also a lot of excitement and desire to keep doing what we are doing,” added the Frenchman.

Only victory will salvage Barca’s season after crashing out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage to Juventus in midweek.

“For some it means it is a very attractive challenge and for others it means pressure,” Enrique said.

“I prefer to take it as an attractive and marvellous challenge. It’s a chance to move level on points with Madrid.”

Steely Juventus shut down Barca to kill off comeback hopes

April 20, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s hopes of staging another sensational Champions League comeback fell flat against a hardened Juventus side who held the Catalans to a 0-0 draw on Wednesday at the Nou Camp to reach the semi-finals 3-0 on aggregate.

TOPSHOT-FBL-EUR-C1-BARCELONA-JUVENTUS

The Italian champions barely gave Barca a glimmer of hope of repeating their historic turnaround against Paris St Germain in the last 16 and protected their healthy advantage from the first leg by starving the hosts of space and clear sights of goal.

Lionel Messi came closest to giving Barca a route back into the contest with four strikes at goal but failed to hit the target with any of them and frequently came up short against Juve’s intimidating centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

Twice European champions Juve lacked the spark and power of their thrilling first-leg victory in Turin, but there was rarely any doubt they would exact revenge for their defeat to Barca in the 2015 Champions League final by reaching the semis for a 12th time.

Barca coach Luis Enrique had said before the game that if Barca managed to strike early then the noise of the Nou Camp would suck the other goals in.

Juventus, however, showed in the opening stages that they are made of sterner stuff than PSG, who gave up a 4-0 first-leg advantage Massimiliano Allegris side pressed Barca in their own half and limited the supply to the front three.

Messi almost managed to pick out Jordi Alba with a hooked pass and later played a one-two with the Spaniard before dragging narrowly wide of the far post.

Ivan Rakitic and Neymar also missed the target with hopeful efforts but Juventus’ aggressive gameplan limited how much attacking Barca could do without leaving themselves exposed.

Gonzalo Higuain cracked a shot over the bar before the break while the probing Juan Cuadrado almost picked out the Argentine striker in the middle, but was thwarted by a brilliant block from Gerard Pique.

Barca increased their grip on possession after the break and spent most of the remainder of the game in their opponents’ half trying to carve out chances, but Juve were always ready for them.

Messi whipped a free kick onto the roof of the net and slammed another shot wide before spurning his best chance, a volley which fizzed over the bar.

Barca right back Sergi Roberto attempted a repeat of his heroic strike against PSG, but also missed the target, unable to prevent his side’s second successive elimination at the quarter-final stage, which will provoke much soul-searching at the five-times European champions.

Barcelona eye another famous comeback with semis in sight

April 17, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Little over a month after producing the greatest comeback in Champions League history, Barcelona need another special turnaround as they face Juventus in the second leg of their quarter-final on Wednesday.

Barcelona

Luis Enrique’s side were taken apart in the first leg in Turin, losing 3-0 to a Juve team inspired by Paulo Dybala, who scored twice.

In the last 16 they became the first team ever to overturn a 4-0 deficit when they beat Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 in the return at the Camp Nou, so fans are hoping for a similar “remuntada” this time.

“We are going to take as many risks as we need to the point that we could go out with eight strikers, as we have nothing to lose,” said Luis Enrique after Saturday’s 3-2 defeat of Real Sociedad.

The Barcelona coach also called for supporters “to have faith in these players who have won everything. This is a squad of champions.”

But he added: “The thing is that we are used to always eating beluga caviar. That can’t go on forever.”

Barca welcome back midfielder Sergio Busquets from suspension, while Juve are hopeful Dybala will be ready after he came off in the 2-0 weekend win at Pescara with a sprained ankle.

“We have four days and we need to be optimistic,” declared coach Massimiliano Allegri.

In contrast to their fierce rivals, Real Madrid are very much on course for a semi-final berth after their 2-1 win away to Bayern Munich last week.

The sides clash at the Santiago Bernabeu in Tuesday’s second leg with the Germans looking to become just the third side to overturn a first-leg home defeat to win a Champions League tie.

Bayern coach Carlo Ancelotti has fitness concerns with leading scorer Robert Lewandowski hopeful of returning from a shoulder injury.

Defenders Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are also fighting to be fit, while Javi Martinez is suspended.

“We go to Madrid well aware of the fact that nothing is impossible,” Thomas Mueller told Bundesliga.com.

“We’re annoyed any time we don’t win, but we have our own way of playing. No matter what problems or injuries we have to deal with, we’re always able to put a strong team out there on the pitch.”

Gareth Bale is struggling to shake off a calf problem for Real, who have lost just twice in 12 past home meetings with Bayern.

Borussia Dortmund go to Monaco still shaken by the events of last week, when the first leg between the clubs was postponed by 24 hours following the bomb attack on the German team’s bus en route to the game.

Dortmund went on to lose 3-2 to the French league leaders but morale was lifted as they got back to winning ways in the Bundesliga at the weekend, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 3-1.

After that game, the Dortmund players paid tribute to defender Marc Bartra by holding his number five shirt aloft as they celebrated in front of their fans.

Spanish international Bartra had earlier been released from hospital after having surgery on a broken wrist suffered in the attack.

“This gesture shows how important the things off the field are to us at this moment, and that Marc gets better soon and that we are all still here,” said Dortmund captain Marcel Schmelzer.

Monaco, looking to become the first French side in the Champions League semi-finals since Lyon seven years ago, are missing the banned Fabinho as well as Djibril Sidibe, who is recovering from appendicitis.

Leicester City have defensive concerns as they look to turn around a 1-0 deficit when they host last season’s runners-up Atletico Madrid.

Robert Huth is suspended and the Foxes are hoping Wes Morgan can return from a back injury as the English champions look to extend their run in Europe. Atletico have French striker Kevin Gameiro back from a groin injury.

Barca complete incredible comeback to sink PSG

March 9, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona became the first team in Champions League history to overturn a four-goal deficit in a knockout tie as a stoppage-time goal by Sergio Roberto completed an extraordinary 6-1 victory over Paris St Germain on Wednesday.

Barcelona's Sergi Roberto celebrates scoring their sixth goal with team mates and fans

Edinson Cavani looked to have wrecked Barcelona’s dreams by volleying in an away goal to make the score 3-1 but two late strikes from Neymar set up a thrilling finale before Roberto scored to seal a 6-5 aggregate win for the Spanish side.

Barcelona began to believe in the impossible dream of clawing back their shock 4-0 loss from the first leg when Luis Suarez headed over the line in the third minute and a Layvin Kurzawa own goal gave them further hope before the break.

Lionel Messi’s penalty five minutes into the second period had the Nou Camp on its feet but Cavani’s strike in the 62nd was a sucker punch to Barca’s ambitions from which Luis Enrique’s side took a while to recover.

A curled free kick from Neymar in the 88th minute gave them hope and the Brazilian converted a penalty before substitute Roberto slid in to knock the ball beyond Kevin Trapp from a chipped free kick and send Barca through to the last eight.

An electric atmosphere gripped the Nou Camp before kick-off after Suarez and Luis Enrique had said they truly believed a comeback was on and the players caught the wave of optimism by swarming all over PSG from the first whistle.

Trapp struggled to cope with the early pressure and flapped at a high ball, allowing Suarez to jump ahead of him and force the ball over the line.

PSG had a penalty appeal turned down when Julian Draxler’s low cross struck Javier Mascherano’s arm but it was one of few forays forward from PSG in the first half as Barca did all the attacking.

The Catalans owed their second to another piece of slack defending, however, as Iniesta nudged his way past Marquinhos in the area to knock the ball back into the danger zone and it bounced off the swinging leg of Kurzawa and into the far corner.

PSG riled Barca supporters by coming back on to the pitch after the break a few minutes late but the Nou Camp was soon celebrating a third as Messi powered a penalty past Trapp after Neymar had been tripped by Thomas Meunier.

Cavani hit the post but made amends by smashing a loose ball home, although he should have added another but was denied by the feet of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

At the time it did not look to be a crucial miss but Barca had other ideas, scoring three times in six minutes to complete an incredible comeback.

Barcelona seek miracle as Bayern, Real eye Champions League quarters

March 6, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona striker Neymar vowed his side will throw everything at Paris Saint-Germain in their bid to overturn a four-goal deficit in the Champions League last 16 this week.

Barcelona

PSG fired a significant warning of intent throughout Europe with a 4-0 rout of Barca in the French capital three weeks ago and will aim to complete the job in the return leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.

But the Catalan giants go into the game buoyed by thumping 6-1 and 5-0 wins in their past two league matches and haven’t given up hope of staging an unprecedented comeback.

No side has lost 4-0 away from home in Europe and gone through in a two-legged tie, but with Barca’s prolific front three of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez they cannot be entirely discounted.

“Against PSG we will run and fight and then we will see what happens,” said Neymar.

“It’s really important that our spirit is on the way up and our confidence too. I see us on the up and with confidence. On Wednesday we are going to play really well.”

Barca knocked PSG out at the quarter-final stage in both 2012-13 and 2014-15, but the reigning French champions have the upper hand this time and January signing Julian Draxler is confident of reaching the last eight for the fifth year in succession.

“Many teams have lost 5-0 at the Camp Nou, we know that anything is possible,” Draxler told PSG’s club website. “But deep down I’m convinced we’ll qualify for the quarter-finals.

“I think it will be important to attack and not just think about defending.”

Bayern Munich have one foot in the next round after thrashing Arsenal 5-1 at the Allianz Arena and look set to eliminate the Gunners in the last 16 for the third time in the past five seasons.

“We have a big advantage, but Arsenal are dangerous, so we have to go full throttle to win,” said Spain international Javi Martinez, who netted his first goal of the season in Saturday’s 3-0 victory at Cologne.

Philipp Lahm will miss the game through suspension, but the Bayern skipper said his team-mates would aim to extinguish any lingering hopes Arsene Wenger’s men have right from kick-off in London.

“We have to be highly focused and, most importantly, show Arsenal in the first quarter-hour they can forget the next round,” Lahm said ahead of Tuesday’s clash, with the Premier League side staring at a seventh straight last-16 exit.

Holders Real Madrid head to Napoli as clear favourites after a 3-1 win in the Spanish capital, but such an advantage has not always proved a guarantee of success for the record 11-time champions.

Real have held a similar lead on eight previous occasions in European competition but only progressed half of the time, providing Napoli with reason to dream they can pull off a shock.

“We believe in it. We know we can score two goals at the San Paolo. We also know it will be quite a job for our defenders,” Senegalese centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly told AFP following Saturday’s 2-1 win at Roma in Serie A.

Borussia Dortmund trail 1-0 ahead of the visit of Benfica to Signal Iduna Park on Wednesday.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a penalty as Kostas Mitroglou’s second-half strike in Lisbon last month gave the Portuguese outfit the edge in their tie.

But the Gabonese striker netted his 20th and 21st goals of the Bundesliga season in Saturday’s 6-2 drubbing of Bayer Leverkusen to move back in front of Bayern marksman Robert Lewandowski at the top of the scoring charts.

However, the victory came at a cost with Germany international Marco Reus ruled out for four weeks after tearing his hamstring.

“It’s sad news, he (Reus) has been playing very consistently for weeks and at a high level,” said Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel.

“It’s an enormous loss which tarnishes the win.”

Real Madrid stage Villarreal fightback, Messi nets winner for Barcelona

February 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo hauled Real Madrid back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Villarreal on Sunday and regain top spot in La Liga from Barcelona.

Real MAdrid

Earlier, Barca had momentarily usurped Real thanks to Lionel Messi’s winner four minutes from time in a 2-1 victory at Atletico Madrid.

Real lead Barca by a point, but also have a game in hand on their title rivals.

“We showed character to turn the game around,” said Real boss Zinedine Zidane.

“With everything that happened today it was vitally important to get the three points.”

Bale was recalled to the starting line-up for the first time in three months after a long-term injury layoff and Real’s shock 2-1 defeat to Valencia in midweek.

And the European champions looked set for a second straight defeat as Villarreal struck twice early in the second half.

Firstly, Manu Trigueros volleyed home Samu Castillejo’s knockdown before Cedric Bakambu burst onto Bruno Soriano’s through ball to slot past Keylor Navas.

Ronaldo almost replied immediately, but Madrid’s luck looked out when his sweetly struck volley came back off the post.

However, Bale started Madrid’s fightback as he rose highest to power home Dani Carvajal’s cross 25 minutes from time.

Villarreal had enjoyed the better of the opening hour, but were swamped by wave upon wave of Real attack for the final 30 minutes.

The visitors needed a slice of luck, though, when Soriano was harshly adjudged to have handled inside his own area 15 minutes from time.

Ronaldo took responsiblity from the spot to smash home the equaliser.

Villarreal had lost goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo midway through the first half to what looks like the fourth cruciate knee ligament injury of his career.

“Asenjo seems to have torn his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in his left knee. It’s a real shame,” said Villarreal coach Fran Escriba.

And his absence was to prove crucial for Real’s winner seven minutes from time as substitute goalkeeper Andres Fernandez let Alvaro Morata’s powerful header from Marcelo’s cross squeeze under his body to complete a rousing Real fightback.

Under-fire Barcelona coach Luis Enrique thanked the “terrible” state of Atletico’s pitch for Messi’s winner at the Vicente Calderon.

Messi stabbed home at the second attempt after his first effort was blocked to register his 27th career goal against Atletico.

“It was a terrible pitch for passing the ball, but I think it favoured us for both the goals,” said Enrique.

Rafinha’s scrappy effort fired Barca into the lead just after the hour, but Atletico responded seven minutes later through Diego Godin.

Defeat leaves fourth-placed Atletico just one point clear of Real Sociedad in the battle for the final Champions League slot.

“We competed very well, but they showed their class in both areas,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

Following their Champions League thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain and struggles at home to Leganes last weekend, Enrique switched from the Catalans’ habitual 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with Messi forced into an advanced midfield role.

The change in tactics did little to stem Barca’s slump in form early on as Atletico dominated the opening half hour.

Atletico’s best effort of the opening half came from long range, though, as Antoine Griezmann’s driven effort on his weaker right foot forced a brilliant flying save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Luis Suarez screwed horribly wide after being played in by Messi at the start of the second-half.

Then at the other end, ter Stegen made another excellent stop to deny Griezmann from a narrow angle.

The deadlock was eventually broken in scrappy fashion on 63 minutes as Rafinha profited from a loose ball inside the area to fire low into the far corner.

However, the lead lasted only seven minutes as Godin rose higher than a host of Barca defenders to flick home Koke’s free-kick for the equaliser.

Yet, when Barca needed a potential season-defining goal, Messi again came up trumps with his 35th in as many games this season.

The five-time World Player of the Year’s first effort from Suarez’s cut-back was blocked, but he followed up to prod past the helpless Jan Oblak and move Barca top of the table for a few hours.

‘Players right behind Enrique’ – Pique

February 21, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Under-fire Barcelona coach Luis Enrique has the total support of his players, influential central defender Gerard Pique insisted on Monday.

Pique

Pique was keen to rally fans to the cause after they had booed the team during a 2-1 league win over lowly Leganes on Sunday, as the fallout from a 4-0 Champions League first-leg last-16 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain last week turned ugly.

“All the players are completely behind the coach,” Pique said of Enrique, who bore the brunt of criticsm after the PSG thrashing and who had a good share of the boos on Sunday.

“When the fans come here to the stadium we want their support,” Pique said.

“Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes not. But this is the same coach that led us to the treble,” Pique said, reminding fans of the 2015 feat Enrique managed in his debut season, winning the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey.

The current coach took over after Pep Guardiola’s reign was followed by more modest success from Tito Villanova, who won a league title and Gerardo Martino, who won nothing.

Pique, a World Cup and European Championship winner, admitted Barcelona had been below par of late.

“We’ve been unrecognisable, unable to hold possession, but trust me we’re the ones hurting most.

“We are alive in all three competitions however and stranger things have happened in football, even if it looks highly compromised for us in the Champions League.

“I swear we will do everything to turn that around,” he promised.

Baca have a Cup final with Alaves and after the Leganes win are a single point behind eternal rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, albeit having played two games more.

Barca face a stiff test next weekend when they travel to Atletico Madrid, before hosting PSG on March 8.

Angel di Maria reborn in Champions League thrashing of Barca

February 15, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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One month ago, Angel di Maria was an outcast on the Paris Saint-Germain substitutes’ bench, but the striker was reborn in the Champions League demolition of Barcelona.

PSG

Two goals in the 4-0 thrashing of Argentina teammate Lionel Messi’s Barca saw birthday boy di Maria hit near perfection in a way that he rarely managed at Manchester United or Real Madrid. Superstar Messi has rarely looked so poor.

Long-suffering PSG players and fans, so often at the receiving end against the Spanish giants, still could not believe the scoreline when they woke up on Wednesday.

“You saw 14 warriors out there, people who wanted to help each other. And when you play like that you have nights like that. It was fabulous,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi.

Di Maria hit a goal in each half on his 29th birthday and each time gave his traditional celebration, forming a heart with his hands.

But di Maria’s heart has not really been in the PSG game this season. Last month, coach Unai Emery banished the second most expensive import into the French league — 63 million euros paid to United in 2015 — to the substitutes’ bench.

Julian Draxler had arrived from Germany and Lucas was playing well. Being out in the January cold jolted di Maria into action.

Already against Bordeaux last Friday, he scored one in the 3-0 win that kept PSG in the French title race against Monaco.

PSG back Thomas Meunier said di Maria hated being on the bench and hailed di Maria’s game against Bordeaux as “an Angel who has gone through a metamorphosis.”

Di Maria said he had problems with the tactics brought in by Emery last year.

“Those who know me know that I like to run everywhere, a bit haphazard. He wants every player to take care of his own space and press from that position. It was a problem at the start, but I understood and now I like it,” di Maria told the Spanish sports daily Marca after the Bordeaux game.

Di Maria forced Lucas out of the starting line up for the Barcelona game and received a standing ovation from the Parc des Princes crowd when he left in the 61st minute.

He scored with a curling free kick and a second half shot, both attempts from outside the penalty area. Di Maria now has nine goals for the season and hopes it will set him up for a spectacular finale.

“It was a very special day. It’s impossible to have a better performance and birthday. It was a wonderful display and fully deserved,” he said on BeIn TV after the match.

“We controlled the game for 90 minutes. It was hard to control Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi but we managed it in the end.”

PSG had twice been eliminated from the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona in the previous four seasons. Barca also had a fearsome record in games against sides coached by Emery, losing just one of 23 games before being put to the sword on Wednesday.

PSG’s Qatari owners have set Emery the task of at least reaching the Champions League semi-finals. The Spaniard has now had a lot of pressure taken off his shoulders. But he warned that the players must make sure they finish the job in the second leg in Barcelona and reach the quarter-finals.

“The only feeling I have is that the team produced a massive effort against the great Barca,” Emery said after the triumph.

“I respect Barca and the message was clear in the dressing room: there is still 90 minutes to go and we are going to suffer there in Barcelona.

“So, prudence, satisfaction, concentration on the second match and respect for the great opposing team and its players.”

PSG host Barcelona in Champions League last-16 first leg tie

February 13, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Paris Saint-Germain host Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday with their Spanish coach Unai Emery desperate to improve his awful personal record against the Catalans.

PSG

Emery was brought to the French capital last year as the successor to Laurent Blanc in order to help take PSG to the next level in Europe after four consecutive quarter-final exits in the Champions League.

But finishing second in their group behind Arsenal exposed PSG to a tougher draw in the first knockout round and now they must beat the Spanish champions — the second leg will be at the Camp Nou next month — just to make it to the last eight again.

Emery, the former Sevilla boss, has come up against Barcelona 23 times in his coaching career and won just once, in La Liga last season.

Paris, meanwhile, have been knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona twice in recent campaigns, losing in the quarter-finals in 2013 and again in 2015 to Lionel Messi, Neymar and co.

But there is a new-found confidence at the Parc des Princes after a fine start to 2017 which has seen them win 10 and draw one of their last 11 games in all competitions.

“We believe in ourselves and this game comes at a good time for us. If it had come at the start of the season I would have been more worried, but everything has changed,” PSG’s Italian midfielder Marco Verratti said after Friday’s 3-0 win at Bordeaux in Ligue 1, in which Edinson Cavani scored twice.

The French champions have beaten Barcelona in the recent past, claiming a 3-2 win in the group stage in September 2014.

They are also a formidable proposition at the Parc des Princes, having lost just once there in Europe in the last decade.

“It’s a huge challenge. Simply put, we will have to play two huge matches,” Brazilian left-back Maxwell, a former Barcelona player, told PSG’s website.

“No-one enters this competition hoping to cross paths with them. Still, it’s up to us to make the difference.”

Emery will be unable to utilise veteran midfielder Thiago Motta, another ex-Barcelona player, due to suspension. Meanwhile, one winger from Angel Di Maria, Lucas Moura and January signing Julian Draxler will have to settle for a place on the bench.

Barcelona travel to France buoyed by a crushing 6-0 win at Alaves in La Liga at the weekend in which Luis Suarez scored twice.

That result means Luis Enrique’s side have now lost just once in 22 games although it was overshadowed by an awful ankle injury suffered by right-back Aleix Vidal which rules him out for the rest of the season.

Javier Mascherano and Arda Turan are sidelined too, although one man who could feature is Rafinha, who was named in the squad but will need a mask to protect a broken nose.

Barcelona are still fighting on three fronts, keeping alive the prospect of another La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble to match those achieved in 2009 and 2015.

“It’s not really something we talk about amongst ourselves but all the players have it in mind,” the club’s former PSG defender Lucas Digne told AFP.

“As long as we are still in every competition, it is very important. This club is born to win trophies.”

Alaves to face Barcelona in Copa del Rey final

February 9, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Edgar Mendez’s solo effort nine minutes from time sent Alaves into their first ever Copa del Rey final with a 1-0 semi-final, second leg win over Celta Vigo enough to progress by the same score on aggregate.

Alaves

The visitors were left to rue a string of missed chances in the first leg as Mendez burst through the Celta defence before firing high past Sergio Alvarez to wild scenes of celebration at Mendizorrotza.

Alaves will have to beat Barcelona to lift the Cup for the first time, though, in May’s final after the holders reached their fourth straight final with a 3-2 aggregate win over Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.

However, Alaves can take inspiration from a shock 2-1 win at the Camp Nou back in September in La Liga.

It is the first time Alaves, newly promoted to the top flight of Spanish football this season, have reached any final since losing out on the 2001 UEFA Cup 5-4 to Liverpool.

And it was a former Liverpool striker who threatened to thwart them once more as Fernando Pachecho made a fine early save to turn Iago Aspas’s effort behind.

Neither side created many chances in a tense encounter, but Alaves made theirs count when Mendez latched onto Victor Camarasa’s flick-on and drove past Hugo Mallo and Gustavo Cabral before unleashing a shot high into the far corner.

Barcelona rue missed chance despite Atletico lead

February 2, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona coach Luis Enrique admitted missed chances leave his side with still some work to do to reach a fourth consecutive Copa del Rey final despite taking a 2-1 semi-final, first leg lead over Atletico Madrid.

Barcelona

Sensational strikes from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi had Barca cruising at half-time at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday.

However, Antoine Griezmann pulled a goal back for an inspired Atletico after the break before Neymar blasted over a huge chance to restore Barca’s two-goal lead.

“If we had been more efficient with the quality we have in this team, we could have taken our chances better and had a different second leg,” said Enrique.

Barca will also be without Neymar for the return leg on Tuesday as he picked up his third yellow card in the Cup this season late on.

“We knew we had to score here,” said Suarez.

“That was important and we got two, but it is not at all over.”

It was a tale of two halves as Barca dominated in the first 45 minutes with Suarez’s sensational solo run and finish after seven minutes added to by Messi’s thunderous 20-yard strike.

“I think we started the tie very well, knowing how difficult it is to play here at the Calderon,” added Enrique.

“We made sure they couldn’t create any attacks, we kept the ball in their half, created a lot of chances and were very efficient.

“In the second-half, given the result, Atletico had to attack. They pressed us much more and caused a lot more problems.

“But it would be naive or ridiculous to think you can come here and not suffer.”

Messi was once again a class apart as he constantly pulled the Atletico defence apart on top of firing home his 30th goal in 29 games this season.

“The big games are when you see the best Leo Messi,” added Enrique.

“He showed us his full repetoire. His dribbling, generating superiority in midfield, giving assists and scoring goals. There are few new superlatives for Messi.”

Four previous two-legged ties between these sides over the past three seasons had been split two apiece.

And Atletico looked far more like the side that Diego Simeone has made a serial contender for trophies over the past five years after the introduction of Fernando Torres at half-time.

“We spoke at half-time and I think in the second-half we got close to the team we have always been,” said Simeone.

“I am left with that positive feeling. We were close to a draw, we fronted up against all the difficulties we faced in the first-half.”

However, for all his achievements, Simeone is yet to win at the Camp Nou as Atletico boss and is aware the odds are very much against Los Rojiblancos reaching the final.

“I don’t know what percentage chance we have,” he added.

“Even if it is 20 percent, we will give everything we have to make that 20 percent count.”

Barcelona, Sevilla maintain pressure on Madrid

January 24, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were all on target as Barcelona shrugged off the loss of the injured Sergio Busquets to remain just two points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid with a 4-0 win at Eibar on Sunday.

Barcelona

Sevilla separate the giants of Spanish football in second, just a point behind Madrid, after twice coming from behind to edge a seven-goal thriller 4-3 at rock-bottom Osasuna.

However, Real Madrid also have a game in hand over their title rivals.

Barca’s visit to the Basque Country was only eight minutes in when Busquets had to be carried off with ankle ligament damage after a dangerous challenge from Gonzalo Escalante that went unpunished.

“The good news about Sergio Busquets is that it doesn’t look as serious as we first thought,” Barca boss Luis Enrique told Spanish TV station Movistar.

The visitors were briefly unsettled as a fine save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen prevented Adrian Gonzalez giving Eibar a shock lead at the tiny 6,200 capacity Ipurua.

Yet, there was little doubt over the outcome once Denis Suarez, who had replaced Busquets, drilled home his first Barca goal into the far corner from outside the box on the half hour mark.

Neymar missed a one-on-one and Luis Suarez hit the post as Barca squandered a series of chances to kill off the game before half-time.

However, Messi doubled their lead just six minutes into the second-half when he swept home Luis Suarez’s cross for his 28th goal in 26 games this season.

And Luis Suarez matched his strike partner as La Liga’s top scorer this season with 15 when he robbed Florian Lejeune before slotting home at the near post 22 minutes from time.

Neymar hadn’t scored from open play since October, but brought that run to an end by slotting home Aleix Vidal’s low cross in stoppage time.

“A positive run of results means everything flows better, the players have more confidence,” added Enrique after a fourth straight win.

“But we are still far off where we want to be.”

Sevilla scored twice in the final five minutes to end Real Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten run in all competitions last weekend and have now won five of the seven La Liga games when they have conceded first this season.

“The team did some good things and made mistakes, but from start to finish looked to win the game,” said Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli.

“To finish the first half of the season with a record number of points (42) and be second fills us with excitement for what is to come.”

Sergio Leon gave Osasuna a shock early lead before an unusual hat-trick from Sevilla captain Vicente Iborra levelled at 2-2 as he twice equalised either side of an own goal to restore Osasuna’s lead.

Osasuna were infuriated Franco Vazquez’s vital third goal for Sevilla was allowed to stand despite a push on Oriol Riera 10 minutes from time.

Pablo Sarabia’s fine left-footed shot from outside the area sealed the points, but there was still time for Osasuna to pull another goal back when Kenan Kodro headed in from close range.

Atletico Madrid lost further ground on the top three as they needed a spectacular Antoine Griezmann equaliser 10 minutes from time to secure a 2-2 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Diego Simeone’s men are now eight points back on Real Madrid.

The visitors got off to the perfect start when Koke’s cross towards Griezmann evaded everyone and flew into the far corner after just three minutes.

However, Atletico were punished for trying to sit on their lead when Inigo Lekue smashed home an equaliser three minutes before half-time.

Athletic then went in front as former Atletico favourite Raul Garcia crossed for Oscar de Marcos to head home.

Griezmann had already had one spectacular finish ruled out by the offside flag, but the French international continued his fine form with a rasping low drive from 25 yards to at least salvage a point for Atletico.

Real Sociedad move level on points with Atletico in fourth as Juanmi’s towering header 18 minutes from time handed them a 1-0 win over Celta Vigo.

Keep calm on Messi deal, says Barca coach

January 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona need to avoid a growing sense of hysteria felt by fans, fellow players and media over protracted negotiations to extend superstar striker Lionel Messi’s contract, his coach Luis Enrique said Friday.

Messi

With just 18 months left on the 29-year-old Argentine’s deal, Enrique insisted there is no need to panic.

“We have to remain calm,” Luis Enrique said, suggesting the club would not be rushed or panicked.

“We’re not getting involved in that,” the coach insisted amid speculation the player may eventually move on.

“The rhythm and the way this is worked out will be dictated by the club and Leo Messi himself.”

“I don’t know about numbers, I know about football. We all want to enjoy watching Messi here for many more years, nothing else matters for me.”

Despite posting a record turnover of 679 million euros ($719 million) last season, a series of expensive new contracts for the likes of Neymar and Luis Suarez mean Barcelona are close to overstepping the 70 percent limit of turnover spent on salaries imposed by UEFA’s financial fair-play laws.

Meanwhile, Enrique hailed Suarez’s achievement of reaching 100 goals in 120 Barcelona appearances, a landmark reached in the 3-1 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao in midweek.

“100 goals in 120 games! My God! Incredible!”, said Enrique ahead of Saturday’s match against Las Palmas.

Barca fail to break Sociedad hoodoo, Atletico bounce back

November 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s winless streak at Real Sociedad stretched to eight games as the Spanish champions were outplayed in a 1-1 draw on Sunday that leaves them six points adrift of La Liga leaders Real Madrid.

Messi

A sumptuous finish from Lionel Messi spared Barca’s blushes after Willian Jose had headed Sociedad into a deserved lead just after half-time.

And Barca were fortunate to escape without a fifth consecutive league defeat in San Sebastian as Carlos Vela hit the woodwork twice and Juanmi’s header was wrongly ruled out for offside.

“It is almost a miracle that we took a point,” Barca boss Luis Enrique told BeIN Sports Spain.

“Real Sociedad were infinitely better than us with and without the ball. They won all the battles.”

A point is enough to move Barca up to second, but they now desperately need to beat Madrid in the first El Clasico of the season at the Camp Nou on Saturday.

Earlier, Atletico Madrid got back to winning ways and moved back into the top four as goals from Diego Godin, Kevin Gameiro and Yannick Carrasco ensured a comfortable 3-0 win at Osasuna.

Barcelona still haven’t won in San Sebastian since 2007, but were grateful for the point as Sociedad failed to cash in on their superiority.

“Playing like this it will be very difficult to win the league,” added Barca defender Gerard Pique.

Xabi Prieto headed a guilt-edged chance wide, whilst Vela also fired off target when well-placed inside the area before the break.

The visitors’ first effort on target came on 50 minutes when Geronimo Rulli turned behind Neymar’s free-kick.

However, Sociedad went in front three minutes later when Pique, who played on in the second-half with a severely strapped ankle, could only slash Jose’s effort into his own net after Marc-Andre ter Stegen had blocked Vela’s initial effort.

Neymar started up front for Barca despite suffering a minor car accident in his Ferrari on Sunday morning.

And the Brazilian finally kickstarted a lame Barca display six minutes later as he burst down the left and crossed for Messi to apply a characteristically clinical finish for his 19th goal in 16 games this season.

Sociedad were cruelly denied 14 minutes from time when a wonderful hit by Vela came back off the underside of the bar and substitute Juanmi’s finish from the rebound was wrongly ruled out for offside.

Asier Illarramendi then cleared off the line from Denis Suarez at the other end before Vela struck the woodwork again with a low effort that clipped the post in a frantic finale.

Atletico had suffered back-to-back La Liga defeats for the first time in four years at the hands of Sociedad and Real Madrid in recent weeks.

However, they never looked in danger after Jan Oblak had saved Roberto Torres’s penalty with the scores still level at 0-0.

Godin nodded home Koke’s corner nine minutes before half-time and almost straight from kick-off Angel Correa released Gameiro to double Atletico’s lead.

Substitute Carrasco rounded off the scoring with his eighth goal of the season in stoppage time.

“It was a very important game for us for the way in which we ended up playing,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

Atletico leapfrog Villarreal, who earlier lost 2-0 at home to Alaves, into fourth and move back to within nine points of Real Madrid.

“Oblak was decisive with the penalty save and after Godin’s goal we felt more comfortable,” added Simeone.

“In the second half we were a lot more organised and had more of a collective effort which allowed us to kill off the game.”

Granada remain winless and rooted to the bottom after a 3-1 defeat at Celta Vigo.

Messi penalty snatches thrilling Barca win

October 23, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi shrugged off his recent woes from the penalty spot with a decisive 94th-minute spot-kick to move Barcelona top of La Liga with a pulsating 3-2 win at Valencia on Saturday.

Messi

However, the dramatic victory came at a cost for Barca as a tearful Andres Iniestasuffered ligament damage in his right knee that could keep him out for several months.

Messi netted twice and his opener midway through the first half was allowed to stand despite Luis Suarez straying into an offside position.

Valencia hit back with two goals in six second-half minutes through on-loan Barca winger Munir El Haddadi and Rodrigo.

However, Suarez levelled and was then upended inside the area by Aymen Abdennour to allow Messi to hold his nerve and slot past penalty-stopping specialist Diego Alves for all three points.

Victory moves the champions a point clear of Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, who face Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao respectively on Sunday.

He may be one of the finest footballers ever but Messi has struggled from the spot in recent seasons, most notably blazing over as Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile in June.

“Our best penalty-taker is Leo Messi without any doubt,” Barca boss Luis Enrique said.

Valencia stopper Alves had saved three penalties this season and from Messi in the past, but was beaten low to his right.

“Messi took responsibility in the best moment and it is a glorious feeling for us,” added Enrique.

A bad-tempered encounter spilled over after Messi’s strike, though, as Suarez and Neymar were hit by a plastic bottle thrown by the Valencia fans as Barca celebrated.

“We celebrated as it is normal to celebrate a last-minute winner,” said Enrique.

The game was only 14 minutes old when Iniesta was carried from the field in tears holding his right knee, which buckled under a heavy challenge from Enzo Perez.

Enrique was furious with referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco as Perez avoided even a yellow card, whilst a series of other fouls on Barca players went unpunished.

Barca confirmed Iniesta suffered lateral collateral ligament damage, but said further tests would be carried out to determine the exact extent of the injury.

However, it was Valencia who were up in arms at the officials when Messi opened the scoring on 22 minutes.

The Argentine’s fifth goal in three games since returning from a groin injury sneaked in at Alves’s near post, but the Brazilian goalkeeper had been distracted by the presence of the offside Suarez jumping over Messi’s effort.

“It is lamentable, absolutely lamentable that refereeing decisions prevented Valencia from taking a point or more from this match,” Valencia sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch told BeIN Sports Spain.

Valencia turned the game around early in the second half as Dani Parejo’s cut-back was drilled into the bottom corner by El Haddadi against his parent club.

The 21-year-old held his hands up apologetically after finding the net, but there were wild celebrations led by new Valencia boss Cesare Prandelli moments later when Rodrigo swept home Nani’s through ball.

Valencia’s lead lasted just six minutes despite Alves’s best efforts as Suarez pounced to smash home a rebound after Ivan Rakitic’s powerful header had been saved by the Valencia stopper.

Barca swarmed forward in search of a winner, but had to wait until deep into stoppage time when Messi played in Suarez and he was clearly taken out from behind by Abdennour.

Messi stroked home his 14th goal of the season to secure a vital three points in the title race.

Earlier, Espanyol battled back from 3-0 down at half-time to salvage a point and possibly coach Quique Sanchez Flores’s job in a 3-3 draw at home to Eibar.

Granada and Sporting Gijon remain in the relegation zone after a 0-0, whilst Real Sociedad moved into the top half with a comfortable 3-0 win over Alaves.

Suarez picks up Golden Shoe after prolific last season

October 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s Uruguayan star Luis Suarez on Thursday collected the Golden Shoe award for the leading scorer in Europe last season and admitted he never imagined being the most prolific member of such a star-studded attack.

Suarez

“I didn’t imagine myself as the top scorer, I only thought about being a champion, winning the Champions League, which I have done,” said Suarez at a prize-giving ceremony in Barcelona.

“I have team-mates who make it easy but I am not going to take credit from myself because it needs to be done and you need to be in the right place,” Suarez, 29, said of his goal-scoring exploits.

The former Liverpool striker, who moved to the Camp Nou in 2014, scored a remarkable 40 goals in La Liga last season as Luis Enrique’s side edged out Real Madrid to take the title.

That tally allowed him to pip Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain, scorer of a Serie A record 36 goals for Napoli, to the award.

Cristiano Ronaldo was third with 35 goals for Real.

He said of all his goals among those that stood out came in the 4-0 destruction of Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

“There were many beautiful goals, important ones, but the ones I liked the most for what they meant were the two against Real Madrid and one against Atletico Madrid because it allowed us to stay top,” he said.

It is the second time Suarez has won the Golden Shoe — in 2013-14 he shared the prize with Ronaldo after netting 31 times for Liverpool in the Premier League.

Ronaldo has won it a record four times, while Suarez’s Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messiis a three-time winner.

He gave a nod to Messi and Neymar, the other member of the so-called MSN.

“I am in the best team in the world, with the best players,” he said.

“When you fix an objective you can reach it but the priority is the collective and winning titles as a team.

“If individual prizes come with that then it’s even better. But if it’s not me who wins them then let it be Leo or Neymar!”

Suarez is the second Uruguayan to win the trophy after Diego Forlan, who took the Golden Shoe when with Villarreal in 2004-05 and again as an Atletico player in 2008-09.

Messi treble as Guardiola suffers on Barca return

October 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi scored his second hat-trick in as many Champions League games to give Barcelona a 4-0 win over Manchester City as Pep Guardiola and Claudio Bravo endured harrowing returns to the Nou Camp on Wednesday.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal to complete his hat trick with Luis Suarez and Neymar.Reuters / Albert Gea

A slip by Fernandinho allowed Messi to round former team mate Bravo and open the scoring in the 17th minute and the keeper completed a miserable night by getting sent off in the second half for handling outside the area after losing the ball.

The magical Messi hammered in his second from the edge of the area after turning two City defenders and pounced on a Luis Suarez lay-off to complete his treble in the 69th minute.

Barca substitute Jeremy Mathieu was then dismissed for two bookable offences. Neymar had a late penalty saved by substitute keeper Willy Caballero but the Brazilian made amends by scoring the fourth goal in the 89th minute.

“It’s difficult to play with Barcelona against 11 men. With 10, it was over,” said Guardiola, while adamant that he would not blame Bravo for the error which effectively ended his side’s night.

“Mistakes happen. He is sad but he will learn a lot. As long as I’m a coach I’ll keep playing out from the goalkeeper,” the coach added.

Luis Enrique’s team lead the group with nine points followed by Guardiola’s City on four. Borussia Moenchengladbach have three points while Celtic are bottom with one.

Guardiola, who surprisingly left out key marksman Sergio Aguero to accommodate more midfield strength, watched his old side pressed back in their own half for 15 minutes until Fernandinho’s error and Messi’s determination changed the course of events.

Messi began the move and fought to win the ball back before threading a pass to Andres Iniesta. Fernandinho tripped over just as he looked set to clear, leaving the Argentine an easy task to score.

City did not wilt, Nolito and Ilkay Guendogan having shots saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen, while at the other end Suarez was denied by Bravo and also shot wide.

The visitors collapsed after the break, though, their downfall starting when Bravo came out of his area and lost the ball to Suarez before using his hands to stop the Uruguayan’s attempted chip.

“Perhaps the result is a bit unfair on them but if you commit grave errors and you have three forwards like ours against you, this is what happens,” Barca coach Luis Enrique said.

Messi’s second strike was reminiscent of a goal he scored against Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in the 2015 semi-finals and Suarez’s generosity allowed the Argentine to knock in the third with simplicity.

Caballero thwarted Neymar from the spot but the Brazilian still had time for a neat fourth, heaping more pain on Barca’s most decorated coach Guardiola.

Cristiano Ronaldo vows ‘spectacular season’

October 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Three-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo insists he will have a “spectacular” season despite a slow start to the campaign caused by knee ligament damage.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo was sidelined for two months by a sprained left knee ligament picked up during Portugal’s Euro 2016 final triumph over France, forcing him to miss Madrid’s first three games of the season.

He has scored just once in four La Liga games since making his return, but netted five times in Portugal’s routs over Andorra and the Faroe Islands in the past week.

“I had a serious injury, I was out for two months. Now I am back and at the start I has less confidence, but bit by bit I am feeling better and more confident. I feel that I am back to what I was,” Ronaldo told Madrid sports daily Marca on Friday.

“The season is very long and I am sure I am going to have another spectacular season.”

Ronaldo is expected to sign a bumper new contract with the European champions until 2021 in the coming days and reiterated his intention to retire in the Spanish capital after becoming the club’s all-time top goalscorer since joining from Manchester United in 2009.

“I didn’t expect to be at Real Madrid for so long. I have already said that I want to retire here. It is the club in my heart.

“It gives me the opportunity to win individual and collective trophies. What I want most of all is to renew (my contract) with Real Madrid and continue here for many years to come.”

Despite bagging two Champions League titles and winning the Ballon d’Or twice during his time with Real, Ronaldo has still only won one La Liga title in seven full seasons.

Zinedine Zidane’s men need to get back to winning ways at Real Betis on Saturday after three consecutive La Liga draws have seen them cede top spot to Atletico Madrid on goal difference.

However, with still a two-point lead over champions Barcelona, Ronaldo is convinced Madrid can end a five-year wait to win La Liga.

“It is the competition in which we have to more consistent. It is an important trophy and hopefully this will be the year.

“Madrid can’t go so many years without winning La Liga, but we are confident and motivated that we are going to win it.”

Lionel Messi back in Barcelona training after injury

October 13, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi returned to training with Barcelona on Wednesday following three weeks out with a groin injury.

Messi

France international defender Samuel Umtiti also returned to training according to a statement on the Catalan giants’ website.

“Both Leo Messi and Samuel Umtiti, despite neither yet being declared fit for selection as they battle to recover from injury, were able to join the rest of the team for the workout,” said the statement accompanied by a photo showing Argentine Messi at training.

The statement also said the likes of Spanish internationals Andres Iniesta, Gerard Piqueand Sergio Busquets had returned following the international break.

Pique was in the photo alongside Messi and Brazil’s Neymar.

Messi, 29, tore a muscle in his groin during the 1-1 draw at home to La Liga title rivals Atletico Madrid on September 21.

Umtiti, 22, had strained a ligament in his knee the day before in training.

The returnees provided a welcome boost for Barca, who saw Spanish full-back Sergi Roberto and back-up goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen of the Netherlands return from international duty injured.

Another full-back, Jordi Alba, and Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic are also out.

Barca host Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday before Manchester City visit the Camp Nou next week for a crucial Champions League tie, with the Premier League outfit’s Catalan coach Pep Guardiola returning to the club he led to two European titles during a glorious four-year spell.

Barca have had an inconsistent start to the season, thrashing the likes of Real Betis (6-2), Celtic (7-0) and Sporting Gijon (5-0) but losing 2-1 at home to Alaves and falling 4-3 at Celta Vigo.

They currently sit fourth in La Liga, although only two points behind leaders Atletico.

They top their Champions League group after winning their opening two games against Celtic and Borussia Moenchengladbach (2-1).

No more wonder goals, says Pique, as Spain face Italy

October 6, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona’s Gerard Pique does not expect to see another Alessandro Florenzi wonder-goal, but Spain will be wary of Italy’s attacking qualities when they meet on Thursday.

Spain

Pique will come face to face with Florenzi a year after the versatile Roma midfielder scored an incredible goal from 50 yards against the Catalans in the Champions League.

It was one of three goals nominated for the 2015 FIFA Puskas award, and Pique said: “It was an incredible goal, but I don’t think we’ll see one like it again.”

Spain face Italy in a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier in Turin on Thursday looking to avenge the 2-0 defeat that sent them crashing out of Euro 2016 as defending champions in June.

Now under a new coach in Julen Lopetegui, who replaced Vicente del Bosque after the Euros, La Roja are looking to build on their 8-0 win over Liechtenstein in their opening game in qualifying Group G.

It is Italy’s first big test since they lost 6-5 to Germany in a penalty shootout in the quarer-finals of Euro 2016.

And Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke believes the the ‘catenaccio’ defensive game that was Italy’s trademark for many years is now a thing of the past.

“Italy has a rich footballing history that is still felt, but in recent years they’ve also improved their game,” said Koke.

“They’re no longer known as a defensive national side.”

New Italy coach Giampiero Ventura saw a 10-man Italy side beat Israel 3-1 away in Haifa in his first competitive outing since succeeding now-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte.

Ventura stuck with the same old 3-5-2 formation for which Italy, like national champions Juventus, have become synonymous.

Lopetegui believes Italy remain fundamentally the same and says Spain will be ready when the hosts try to threaten.

“They haven’t changed their approach really,” said Lopetegui, a former goalkeeper who took over from Del Bosque following an 18-month stint with Porto.

“Sure, they have made a few little changes here and there but their philosophy remains the same.

“But if the Azzurri hurt us, as they did in Paris, we will be ready for them.”

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