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Two-goal Ronaldo keeps Madrid kings of Europe

June 5, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice as Real Madrid crushed Juventus 4-1 in Cardiff on Saturday to become the first team to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era.

Ronaldo

The Portugal superstar’s opener was cancelled out by an astonishing Mario Mandzukic strike, but goals from Casemiro, Ronaldo and Marco Asensio secured Madrid’s third Champions League triumph in four years and 12th in total.

Now a four-time Champions League winner, Ronaldo finished as the competition’s top scorer for the fifth season running, substantially enhancing his chances of matching fierce rival Lionel Messi’s tally of five Ballon d’Or crowns.

“We’re very happy to be the first team to win the Champions League in two consecutive years,” said Ronaldo, who has now scored exactly 600 goals for club and country in his extraordinary career.

“I finished the season very well. It is another record, a record that these players deserve and we are delighted.”

Zinedine Zidane, a head coach for only 17 months, became the first boss to oversee back-to-back European Cup successes since Arrigo Sacchi’s fabled AC Milan team won the tournament in 1989 and 1990.

“It’s a tremendous joy for the players and for this immense club,” Zidane told beIN Sports Spain.

“I am happy because it is not easy to win things like La Liga and the Champions League, and this year we did it with hard work and desire.”

Victory crowned a glorious season for Madrid, who have pulled off a La Liga and European Cup double for the first time since 1958, having also won the Club World Cup and European Super Cup.

Zidane’s joy was his former club Juve’s despair, Massimiliano Allegri’s side crashing to a fifth successive defeat in Champions League finals and seventh in total, extending their own desperately unwanted record.

The first Champions League final to be played beneath a closed roof saw Juve hit their heads against a familiar ceiling as they missed out on a chance to complete the first Treble in their history.

The Italian champions had substitute Juan Cuadrado sent off after he was shown a second yellow card for a gentle push on Sergio Ramos that drew a lamentable overreaction from the Madrid skipper.

“We thought we had enough to win the game. I cannot explain why we played like we did in the second half,” said Juve captain Gianluigi Buffon, now a three-time beaten finalist.

“Real Madrid deserved to win in the second half. They showed their class and the attitude needed to play in this kind of game.”

Following an elaborate pre-match ceremony involving American pop act Black Eyed Peas at the Principality Stadium, Juve settled first.

Gonzalo Higuain worked Keylor Navas twice, while Miralem Pjanic’s snappy half-volley forced the Madrid goalkeeper into a smart one-handed save.

Madrid drew first blood in the 20th minute when Ronaldo flicked the ball wide to Dani Carvajal before artfully sweeping the Spaniard’s return pass into the bottom-left corner via a nick off Leonardo Bonucci.

It was a fine strike, and it made Ronaldo the first player to have scored in three finals in the post-1992 Champions League age, but it was quickly cancelled out by Mandzukic’s masterpiece.

Bonucci’s flighted pass from deep was volleyed into the box by Alex Sandro and Higuain chested the ball down before teeing it up for Mandzukic.

The Croatian forward took a touch with his chest and then, as he fell, hooked a sublime volley over Navas’s despairing dive and beneath the crossbar.

But after the break, it was Zidane’s men who set the tempo and in the 61st minute Casemiro put them ahead.

The Brazilian midfielder unleashed a shot from 25 yards that flicked off the heels of Madrid old boy Sami Khedira before spinning past the helpless Buffon.

Three minutes later it was game over as Ronaldo netted his 12th goal in this season’s tournament, moving him a goal clear of Messi, and 105th overall.

Luka Modric sped to the byline on the right and crossed as Ronaldo darted ahead of Bonucci at the near post to guide a shot past Buffon.

Cardiff native Gareth Bale made an appearance as a late replacement for Karim Benzema, having been out since April 23 with a calf injury.

Sandro headed wide from a Dani Alves free-kick, but Juve’s fire went out when Cuadrado was given his marching orders and substitute Asensio added to their misery with a late tap-in from Marcelo’s cut-back.

Juventus bar Zidane’s path to history with Madrid

June 3, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Only Zinedine Zidane’s former club Juventus stand between the Real Madrid coach and football history in Saturday’s star-studded Champions League final in Cardiff.

Real Madrid

A head coach for only 17 months, the former France playmaker can become the first manager to win back-to-back European Cups since AC Milan’s Arrigo Sacchi in 1989 and 1990 and the first in the Champions League era.

Zidane had a hand in Madrid’s ninth, 10th and 11th European triumphs — as a player, assistant coach and head coach — and the quest for the ‘Duodecima’ (12th) brings him up against an old flame.

“If you’d said I was going to live all this when I was a child, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Zidane told Friday’s pre-game press conference at the Principality Stadium.

“But I’m living it and I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying what’s happening to all of us. I’m just the coach.

“It’s really beautiful to be able to play the final again, like we did in Milan (in 2016). We’re ready to play.”

Victorious against city rivals Atletico Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 finals, Real are chasing a third success in four seasons.

It would allow them to proclaim European dominance with a conviction they last possessed during Alfredo Di Stefano’s five consecutive wins of the late 1950s.

Zidane, 44, has already led his team to glory in La Liga, ending a five-year league title drought, as well as the Club World Cup and European Super Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, can claim a fourth European crown, which would only enhance his chances of matching fierce rival Lionel Messi’s haul of five Ballon d’Or successes.

The 32-year-old Portuguese has exploded reports of his demise with stunning hat-tricks against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Atletico in the last four.

With 10 goals to his name, he needs one more to equal Messi’s tally in this season’s competition and become a Champions League top scorer for the fifth season running.

The final could prove a glorious homecoming for Madrid’s Cardiff native Gareth Bale, although the Wales star is expected to start on the bench due to a calf injury, with the in-form Isco due to continue in his place.

While Zidane, Ronaldo and Bale hope their good fortune in the competition continues, Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is praying for a turning of the tide.

A beaten finalist in 2003 and 2015, the 39-year-old Italy great dreams of adding the ultimate club honour to the World Cup winner’s medal he collected in 2006.

“Real Madrid are used to winning finals,” Buffon said.

“We’ve lost a number of finals. So maybe it’s a good match in that sense. We’re going to try and overturn our record in history.”

Juve must shed their status of perennial Champions League bridesmaids, having finished runners-up on a record six occasions and lost their last four finals.

Italian champions for the sixth year running and Coppa Italia winners, the Turin giants are also aiming to become only the eighth club to complete the European Treble.

They were pursuing the same milestone in 2015, when they lost 3-1 to Barcelona in Berlin, but coach Massimiliano Allegri says his streetwise side are now ready to take the final step.

“In 2015 we got to the final and deserved it, but we perhaps were not strongly motivated,” he told reporters on Friday.

“We didn’t feel confident enough because we’d had struggles in the Champions League for a number of years.

“We didn’t get to the final by chance, but we didn’t expect to win. This year it’s completely different. We’ve been growing gradually. Juventus have improved a lot.”

While Madrid possess the competition’s sharpest attack, Juve boast its meanest defence, having successively shut down the sparkling attacks of Barcelona and Monaco en route to Cardiff.

Beneath a closed roof at the Principality Stadium — a first for a Champions League final — a classic contest beckons.

La Liga win is bigger than World Cup for Zidane

May 25, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Zinedine Zidane claimed winning La Liga as Real Madrid coach on Sunday surpasses his stellar achievements as a player and even lifting the Champions League in his debut season as coach last year.

Real Madrid

Madrid claimed the Spanish title for a 33rd time as Cristiano Ronaldo struck his 40th goal of the season and Karim Benzema slotted home early in the second-half to secure a 2-0 win at Malaga.

“It is the happiest day of my professional life by a distance,” Zidane said after landing Madrid’s first title in five years.

“Right now I would like to stand up here and dance,” he added in a press conference interrupted by Marcelo, Danilo, Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez and Alvaro Morata drowning their boss in champagne.

Zidane won the World Cup, European Championships and Champions League as one of the greatest players of his generation, but said the extra responsibility that comes with being coach made his achievements all the greater.

“As coach of Real Madrid you know what the expectations are,” he added.

“I have experienced it as a player and that is why I say it is the happiest day of my professional life because being a coach changes everything.

“I have won everything with this club, this shirt but to win La Liga is the best of all.

“I live what I am doing with passion and what I have enjoyed the most is today because after nine or 10 months we have won La Liga.”

Zidane’s role in restoring Madrid to the top of Spanish football was hailed by Ronaldo as the Portuguese claimed just his second league winners’ medal in eight seasons since joining the Spanish giants.

“He has managed things very intelligently along with his assistants,” said Ronaldo.

“The proof is there, we have won a very difficult league against one of the best teams in the world in Barca and for me Zidane has done a phenomenal job.”

Madrid could go onto complete a first La Liga and Champions League double for 59 years when they face Juventus in the Champions League final on June 3.

And Real’s run to the title was most certainly a squad effort with Ronaldo sidelined or rested for nine games — all of which they won.

“On a collective level I think it is my best season at Real Madrid,” added Ronaldo.

“Everyone has played minutes and all the squad have contributed.”

Madrid edged out reigning champions Barcelona by just three points after the Catalans came from 2-0 down to beat Eibar 4-2 on Sunday.

And Zidane highlighted his side’s response from losing a thrilling El Clasico 3-2 to Barca with the last kick of the ball last month by winning their last six league games as the key to the title.

“The last six games, but for sure the last three have been key,” added the Frenchman.

“To win 4-1 at home (against Sevilla), 4-1 away (at Celta) and then 2-0 today is spectacular.”

Atletico comeback falls short as Real reach final

May 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Real Madrid inflicted a fourth Champions League elimination on Atletico Madrid in as many years on Wednesday, losing their semi-final second leg 2-1 but progressing to the final 4-2 on aggregate.

Real Madrid

Atletico had threatened an incredible comeback, Saul Niguez’s powerful header and Antoine Griezmann’s penalty inside 16 minutes cutting Real’s aggregate lead to a solitary goal.

The hosts fed off a ferocious atmosphere for their final Champions League match at the Vicente Calderon before moving to the Wanda Metropolitano next season.

However, Isco’s away goal just before half-time settled Real’s nerves and left Atletico with too much to do to progress.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first leg hat-trick ultimately proved decisive and Real will seek to become the first side to defend the trophy in the Champions League era when they face Juventus in the final in Cardiff on May 3.

“I am delighted to reach the final,” said Real boss Zinedine Zidane.

“It is a long road to get there and to do so two years in a row, you have to congratulate the squad.”

An already fierce rivalry between the Spanish giants has intensified in recent years by Real’s three Champions League victories over Atletico, including in the 2014 and 2016 finals.

However, Atletico’s players went a long way towards making amends for their meek display in the first leg eight days ago in a thrilling opening.

“The team showed once more why they have been competing at this level for so many years,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

“Those first 20, 25 minutes will be in the history of the club.

“The atmosphere was one of those magical moments in the Calderon that will live in people’s memories forever.”

Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas denied Koke from close range and Fernando Torres headed over, before at the other end Jan Oblak made a brilliant save from Casemiro’s header.

Atletico got the goal they needed to get back into the tie 12 minutes in when Koke’s outswinging corner was met powerfully by Saul for his fourth Champions League goal of the season.

Just three minutes later Atletico truly believed they could pull off the most unlikely of comebacks when Fernando Torres was upended by Raphael Varane inside the box.

Griezmann had missed his previous two penalties against Real, including in last year’s Champions League final.

This time the French international found the net, albeit with a bit of fortune as Navas got a hand to his mishit spot-kick but couldn’t keep it out.

Fierce challenges then rained in from both sides as Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakır struggled to keep control, with five players booked inside the opening 37 minutes.

However, Real regained their composure to get the vital away goal they needed for some extra breathing space just before half-time.

Karim Benzema somehow escaped the attention of three Atletico defenders on the by-line and cut the ball back for Toni Kroos.

Oblak made another brilliant stop to deny the German, but Isco followed up from close range to bundle the ball home.

Ronaldo had scored eight times in his previous three Champions League appearances, however, the closest the World Player of the Year came to adding to his record 21 goals against Atletico was a driven free-kick at the start of the second half that was beaten away by Oblak.

Atletico had their chances to put the tie back on a knife-edge as Navas produced an incredible double save from Yannick Carrasco and Kevin Gameiro.

The Costa Rican then got down low to his right to turn behind Griezmann’s low volley and Gameiro failed to turn home another great opportunity from point-blank range.

A torrential thunder storm disrupted the final stages, but lightning has now struck four times for Atletico against Real and Zidane’s side will head to Cardiff seeking a 12th European Cup against his former club.

Ronaldo hat-trick leaves Real on verge of final

May 3, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo proved Atletico Madrid’s Champions League destroyer once more with a hat-trick as Real Madrid took a commanding 3-0 semi-final, first leg lead on Tuesday.

Ronaldo

Ronaldo extended his lead as the all-time top scorer in Madrid derby matches by taking his tally to 21 and put Real firmly on course to defend their title in the final in Cardiff on June 3.

The Portuguese rewarded a bright Real start by heading home Casemiro’s deflected cross after just 10 minutes.

Ronaldo then smashed home from just inside the area and turned home Lucas Vazquez’s cross in the final 20 minutes as Real continued their domination of Atletico having eliminated them in the Champions League for the past three seasons.

“The team was tremendous. I scored the goals but the team was phenomenal from start to finish,” said Ronaldo.

The sides meet again for the second leg on May 10.

“We have a good advantage but the tie isn’t over yet,” added Ronaldo.

“Atletico are a good side and it is not a coincidence they are in the semi-finals again. We have to be concentrated next Wednesday.”

Atletico boss Diego Simeone, meanwhile, told his side to forget their latest derby demolition and hope for a miracle at the last European match at their Vicente Calderon stadium next week.

“We need to forget about this game,” said the Argentine.

“It seems impossible, but it is football and football has these unexpected things that make it marvellous.

“Until the last drip of hope is gone, we will give it everything we have.”

Real needed a stoppage time equaliser en route to beating Atletico in the 2014 final, scored a late winner in the quarter-finals a year later and edged last season’s final between the two on a penalty shootout.

However, there was far more a gulf between the sides this time round.

Real piled on the pain in the opening stages for the 4,000 visiting away fans and could have killed the tie in the opening half hour.

Atletico were handed a lucky escape on seven minutes when Jan Oblak parried Dani Carvajal’s effort at the end of a careering run and the Slovenian recovered to also turn behind Karim Benzema’s follow-up effort.

There was no let off three minutes later, though, as Atletico failed to clear a corner and Casemiro’s bouncing cross looped up for Ronaldo to power home a header.

Oblak kept Atletico alive in the moments that followed with a brilliant save from Raphael Varane’s header and more comfortable stop from Isco.

However, at the other end, Keylor Navas rescued Real from conceding a vital away goal when he got a touch on the ball as Kevin Gameiro tried to round him when clean through on goal.

The majority of the efforts continued to rain down on Oblak’s goal as Luka Modric drilled a shot from the edge of the box inches wide.

And Benzema then acrobatically turned a Ronaldo cross just over the bar.

The only negative news of the night for Real was an injury to right-back Dani Carvajal just before half-time as he pulled up with a muscle problem that looks set to keep him out of the second leg.

Clear-cut chances were far harder to come by after half-time as Atletico toiled to create, whilst Real sat on their lead waiting for the chance to counter-attack.

However, once again in ties between these two, Real got the slice of luck to go with their extra quality.

The ball rebounded up perfectly off the heels of Filipe Luis for Ronaldo to blast high past Oblak.

And Ronaldo completed his second hat-trick against Atletico this season four minutes from time when Lucas Vazquez’s cutback picked out the four-time World Player of the Year to slot home from close range.

Bayern host Real Madrid in Champions League quarter-final 1st-leg

April 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Bayern Munich host Real Madrid in Wednesday’s mouthwatering Champions League quarter-final, first-leg, with Carlo Ancelotti’s Bavarians looking once again to be the Spaniards’ ‘bete noire’.

Real Madrid

And the subplots to the Allianz Arena clash are fascinating.

Bayern boss Carlo Ancelotti coached Real to the 2014 Champions League crown and is up against his former assistant from that triumph, Madrid’s current head coach Zinedine Zidane.

World Cup 2010 winner Xabi Alonso, who also won the 2014 Champions League before joining Bayern, will face his ex-club for the last time before retiring in June.

And Real’s Germany midfielder Toni Kroos is another to be coming up against his former employers.

Ancelotti says “little things will make the difference” between the star-studded squads that will see two goal-scoring giants go head-to-head.

Bayern’s top-scorer Robert Lewandowski, with 38 goals in all competitions this season, is up against Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, with 26 goals from 36 games.

That may be modest by his standards, but Ronaldo has tormented Bayern in the past with four goals in as many games and the Bavarians will be wary, especially with backup from Wales star Gareth Bale and France’s Karim Benzema.

Lewandowski suffered a bruised shoulder in scoring twice in Saturday’s 4-1 hammering of Borussia Dortmund, but expects to be “100 percent” fit.

Bayern are on a Champions League record of 16 straight European wins at the Allianz Arena and that’s a record Dutch winger Arjen Robben is keen to maintain.

“We have to up the ante, we have to signal (to Real) from the first minute that there is nothing to take in Munich and we want to win the game,” he said.

Bayern are looking to recover their ‘bete noire’ nickname, given to them by Real fans after Munich won eight of 14 matches against Real between 2000 and 2012.

All that changed in the 2014 Champions League’s semi-final when the team coached by Pep Guardiola was thrashed 4-0 in Munich, crashing out 5-0 on aggregate as Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos netted twice each.

That defeat remains Bayern’s record home European loss, yet there is no talk of revenge ahead of Wednesday’s clash.

“This is the quarter-finals, but it sounds like a final,” said Bayern captain Philipp Lahm.

“We’re playing against an absolute top team, who have top players in every position. We will have to play to our potential.”

Both sides are missing key defenders, though.

Germany’s Mats Hummels was ruled out after damaging ankle ligaments on Sunday so Jerome Boateng and Javi Martinez will form the centre-back partnership.

Hummels faces a race against time to be back for the return at the Santiago Bernabeu on April 18, while Real have defenders Pepe and Raphael Varane ruled out of both legs.

Pepe suffered a double rib fracture in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid, while Varane is out for a month with a hamstring injury.

Right-back Daniel Carvajal trained on his own on Monday and is struggling with a knock.

Bayern received a boost on Monday with Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer back in training following a minor foot operation 10 days ago, while Thomas Mueller is also fit after an ankle injury.

“We’re very confident. It’s a European cracker featuring two top teams,” said Mueller.

“We also notice it outside the club, not only in terms of the media, but also when talking to friends or acquaintances in Munich.

“Everyone’s talking about the game.”

Leicester’s Champions League breakthrough keeps fairytale alive

March 15, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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In progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time, Leicester City preserved a golden thread stretching back all the way to last season’s miraculous Premier League title success.

Leicester City

The thread has worn close to breaking in recent weeks, with Leicester’s perilous slide towards the relegation zone costing popular manager Claudio Ranieri his job.

But after overcoming a 2-1 deficit to beat Sevilla in the Champions League last 16, the sense of fearlessness that became their hallmark a year ago has returned.

“They looked so fluid and had such amazing passion and determination,” the club’s former manager David Pleat told BBC Radio 5 Live after Leicester’s 2-0 win over Sevilla on Tuesday.

“I don’t think they would want either Real Madrid or Barcelona in the quarter-final. But who would have thought they would win the title last year? So whoever they face, who knows?”

As well as Barcelona and Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund also lie in wait in Friday’s last-eight draw.

Atletico Madrid and Manchester City are in pole position to join them ahead of the final two last 16 second legs later on Wednesday.

Asked who he hoped to avoid in the quarter-finals, Juve’s emblematic captain Gianluigi Buffon replied: “Leicester.”

The prospect of a genuine European superpower arriving at the King Power Stadium will further help to restore some of the magic dust that had been rubbed off amid Leicester’s domestic toils.

Eliminated from both cup competitions and fighting to keep themselves above the Premier League bottom three, the Champions League represents their only hope of prolonging last season’s fairytale.

Wednesday’s Daily Mail back-page headline said Leicester could “CARRY ON DREAMING”, while The Guardian said victory over Sevilla had seen Leicester “write a new fairytale”.

The Times said Leicester were “back in fantasy land”.

The great irony of Leicester’s resurgence is that it has taken the dismissal of Ranieri, architect of the title win, for the players to start playing like they had last season.

They had already found the Champions League to be well-suited to their preferred contain-and-counter strategy, however, having recorded four wins and kept four clean sheets during the group phase.

Ranieri tried to introduce greater sophistication to Leicester’s tactics, notably deploying Riyad Mahrez in a central role in the 2-1 first-leg loss to Sevilla, which was to prove his last game.

But the instant impact enjoyed by his successor Craig Shakespeare suggests Leicester’s players are both happier and more effective with the simple 4-4-2 formula used to such devastating effect last season.

“I think we have to play to our strengths,” said Shakespeare, Ranieri’s former assistant.

“You have to be concerned about the opposition, and know their strengths, but as a football club, we have to know our strengths.

“You saw that in abundance in the performance (against Sevilla), in terms of desire, but we can play a bit as well.

“(Beating Sevilla) epitomises what we’re about.”

Tactical factors only go so far in explaining the Leicester turnaround under Shakespeare, which started with successive 3-1 wins over Liverpool and Hull City.

The sight of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki once again breathlessly harrying opposition centre-backs suggested the change has been as much psychological as anything else.

“There had to be something wrong there,” observed former England right-back Danny Mills, a Champions League semi-finalist with Leeds United in 2001.

“All those fans who thought it was a disgrace that Ranieri was sacked, they have got to eat some humble pie.”

With Leicester still only three points above the Premier League relegation zone, their players cannot afford to be distracted by dreams of European glory for too long.

But with the Champions League music guaranteed to boom out around the King Power on at least one further occasion this season, the Leicester fairytale may yet have more magic in store.

Bale sees silver lining in injury misery

February 19, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Gareth Bale hopes three tough months on the sidelines will have their recompense by helping Real Madrid’s bid for La Liga and Champions League glory and Wales’ hopes of reaching the World Cup.

Bale

Bale made an instant impact on his first taste of action for 88 days after damaging ankle ligaments as he fired home Madrid’s second in a 2-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday just 13 minutes after coming off the bench.

And the Welshman hopes he can match his fantastic form from the final three months of last season after suffering from injury problems earlier in the campaign.

“Every cloud has a silver lining, hopefully I am a bit fresher than maybe some others,” said Bale.

“It can work in my advantage to be out for a little bit, but the important thing now is to get back to 100 percent and playing well and to help the team.”

Victory took Real four points clear of Barcelona at the top of La Liga with a game in hand.

However, Zinedine Zidane’s men face an intense final few months of the campaign with 18 La Liga games and their defence of the Champions League still to play for.

Bale’s return is also a timely boost for Wales boss Chris Coleman ahead of his side’s crunch World Cup qualifier away to the Republic of Ireland on March 24.

“I plan not to get injured any more,” added Bale.

“Hopefully now I can keep building my fitness up over the next few weeks…hopefully I can be fit for Real Madrid as soon as possible to play 90 minutes, and obviously for Wales as well.”

Bale was given a hero’s reception on his return by the Santiago Bernabeu crowd.

And he admitted getting on the scoresheet was just a bonus to the joy of being back among the action.

“I was happy just to be on the pitch. To get a goal is an extra bonus and thankful to help the team and see the game off,” he continued.

“There has been some tough moments, but we have an amazing medical team here. Jaime Benito (physio) has been incredible for me, my family have been amazing, my fiancee, my kids.

“It’s been a difficult time but when you get a reception like that it makes it all worth it.”

Madrid face tougher tests over the next week with trips to Valencia and Villarreal to come.

And Bale insisted he isn’t expecting to be rushed back into the starting line-up by Zidane.

“I’ve been out for three months so it will take a few weeks to get back to 100 percent, it’s just about managing my game time.

“It depends how I feel game-by-game. Today was 20 minutes. I will speak with the manager about Valencia and Villarreal.”

However, Zidane admitted Bale brings special qualities that others can’t offer.

“We only have one Gareth Bale,” said the Frenchman. “We are happy to see Gareth back with the team. He is a special player, he gives us something different from the rest.”

Ozil nets hat-trick as Arsenal thrash Ludogorets 6-0

October 20, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Mesut Ozil applied the gloss to a ruthless Arsenal display with a second-half hat-trick in a 6-0 hammering of Ludogorets that put the Gunners on the brink of the Champions League knockout rounds on Wednesday.

Britain Football Soccer - Arsenal v PFC Ludogorets Razgrad - UEFA Champions League Group Stage - Group A - Emirates Stadium, London, England - 19/10/16Arsenal's Mesut Ozil celebrates scoring their sixth goal and his hat trick Reuters / Toby MelvilleLivepic

Arsenal were cantering against the Bulgarian champions thanks to sublime first-half goals from Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott and a strike straight after the break from Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain before playmaker Ozil joined the party.

As Ludogorets crumbled, his well-taken goals in the 56th, 83rd and 87th minutes helped Arsenal to their biggest Champions League win since a 7-0 thrashing of Slavia Prague in 2007 and sealed their seventh successive win in all competitions.

Arsenal, who have fallen at the last 16 stage six seasons in a row, lead Group A on goal difference from Paris St Germain with both clubs on seven points. Ludogorets and Basel have one and are effectively playing heading for a Europa League berth.

“In the second half we took control of the game completely and could have scored more,” manager Arsene Wenger told reporters. “Ozil has got the taste to score goals.

“We want him to be a provider and a scorer and it looks like he has got that balance now.”

Sanchez struck after 12 minutes with a majestic lob over Ludogorets keeper Vladislav Stoyanov but until Walcott slammed home his eighth goal in 10 games from 25 yards shortly before halftime it was a surprisingly even game.

Ludogorets, featuring three Brazilians in their starting line-up, cut through Arsenal’s defence several times and should have been level through lively winger Wanderson who forced David Ospina into a sharp save before hitting the post.

The second half was a romp as confidence ebbed through an Arsenal side unbeaten since the opening day of the season.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, making his first start for a month, swept in from close range in the 46th minute and 10 minutes later Ozil raced on to Santi Cazorla’s long punt and finished coolly past the over-exposed Stoyanov.

With victory in the bag Sanchez and Walcott were both substituted but Ozil stayed on, first converting substitute Lucas Perez’s low cross, then burying a volley to become the fifth Arsenal player to score a Champions League hat-trick.

Despite the emphatic nature of Wenger’s 100th European win for Arsenal, the Frenchman admitted his side had ridden their luck.

“We maybe eased off a bit early in the first half, we were sometimes in danger and I would like to give credit to (David) Ospina who saved us twice,” Wenger said.

It could, however, have been a cricket score by the end.

“The only good thing is that this is not the heaviest defeat in the history of the UEFA Champions League,” Stoyanov said.

Arsenal will try to keep the pressure on PSG in the race for top spot when they go to Bulgaria in two weeks time.

Napoli eye last 16 place and small slice of history

October 18, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Napoli could become the first team in Champions League history to qualify from their group after only three games on Wednesday, providing welcome relief from their recent troubles.

Football Soccer - Napoli v Verona - Italian Serie A - San Paolo Stadium, Napoli, Italy - 10/04/16 Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne shoots and score a penalty. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

A home win over Besiktas, plus a draw in the other Group B game between Dynamo Kiev and Benfica, would guarantee last season’s Serie A runners-up a place in the last 16 for only the second time.

The match will also see Besiktas midfielder Gokhan Inler return to the club where he spent four years of his career. The former Switzerland captain has promised not to celebrate if he scores.

Napoli, unbeaten in their last 18 European matches, have six points from their first two games although their 4-2 home win over Benfica three weeks ago, when they scored four times in less than an hour, now seems a world away.

Maurizio Sarri’s side have lost both Serie A games they have played since, dropping to fourth in the table and falling seven points behind leaders Juventus.

They have also lost striker Arkadiusz Milik to a long-term knee injury and do not have an obvious replacement.

Manolo Gabbiadini was given the job against AS Roma on Saturday but the 25-year-old failed to make an impact and was jeered off when he was substituted after 57 minutes in the 3-1 defeat.

Another alternative would be to field Belgian international Dries Mertens as a so-called false number nine, a role he performed when he replaced Gabbiadini on Saturday.

“Dries does these things well, it’s a role he can play but of course we can’t expect him to be a centre-forward in the traditional sense,” Sarri said.

Napoli were playing flowing football early in the season but the plaudits have dried up as quickly as the goals for Sarri, who is facing criticism for failing to rotate his squad.

His players laboured on a warm afternoon against Roma, prompting critics to question why he does not give more fringe players a chance.

Midfielders Marko Rog and Amadou Diawara have yet to get on the field since they were signed in the close season while forward Emanuele Giaccherini has played a total of 19 minutes since he was signed from Sunderland.

Nineteen-year-old Diawara’s absence is especially surprising as he cost Napoli 14 million euros from Bologna.

Besiktas have drawn their opening two games in the group and are unbeaten in all competitions this season, apart from losing on penalties to Galatasaray in the Turkish Super Cup.

Barcelona battle from goal down to beat Gladbach 2-1

September 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Barcelona battled back from a goal down and scored twice in the second half to overcome hosts Borussia Moenchengladbach 2-1 in their Champions League Group C match on Wednesday despite the absence of the injured Lionel Messi.

Barcelona v Borussia Moenchengladbach

Second-half goals from substitute Arda Turan and Gerard Pique gave the Spaniards their second win in two group matches to top the standings, after their opening 7-0 demolition of Celtic.

The hard-working Germans had taken a surprising lead, scoring against the run of play, with Thorgan Hazard slotting in to complete a quick break in the 34th minute.

“We took a deserved victory and this was a reward for the effort made by the entire team,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said.

“We dominated the first half and created several chances. We did not carve out as many chances after the break but overall it was a deserved win.”

Barcelona, who had Argentine Messi missing with a groin injury, are now on six points after their second group win.

The hosts, who managed just one shot on target have zero, after their second loss in the group ended an 11-match winning streak at home in all competitions.

Manchester City drew with Celtic 3-3 in the other group game to stay second on four points.

Enrique started with Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic, all of whom were rested in the 5-0 thrashing of Sporting Gijon at the weekend.

Despite the absence of Messi it was the Spaniards who stamped their authority on the game early on and carved out the first chance with Neymar’s shot from inside the box saved by keeper Yann Sommer after seven minutes.

Luis Suarez should have put them ahead three minutes later when he pounced on a defensive error but he saw his powerful left-footed shot sail narrowly wide.

The Uruguayan was also the recipient of a brilliant defence-splitting pass from Neymar but instead of rifling home he tried a cutback to Alcacer that was cleared.

Gladbach gradually grew in confidence and scored when forward Raffael, back from injury, gained possession in midfield and launched a quick break with Hazard tapping in from a Mahmoud Dahoud pass.

The Brazilian’s injury in the 48th minute and his substitution, however, took out most of their pace.

The introduction of Turan on the hour brought instant results for the Spaniards, with the Turk picking up a Neymar assist in the 65th and drilling the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle.

Pique then pounced on a weak clearance by Sommer to tap in the loose ball and hand Barcelona a hard-fought victory.

Dazzling Arsenal raise Wenger’s England stock

September 29, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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If he really wants the once-again vacant England job Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal players provided the Frenchman the perfect showreel in a classy 2-0 defeat of FC Basel to move joint top of Champions League Group A on Wednesday.

Theo Walcott

Sam Allardyce’s self-inflicted demise after only 67-days in charge of the national team has inevitably given voice to those who say the FA should turn to Wenger — an almost de-facto Englishman after 20 years in charge of Arsenal.

Arsenal’s vibrant display against a club that has got the better of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in the competition in recent years will strengthen their calls.

Theo Walcott, discarded by Allardyce’s predecessor Roy Hodgson for the woeful Euro 2016 campaign, scored twice before the break as the hosts tore Basel apart.

Walcott combined superbly with Alexis Sanchez for both goals — the first a header from the Chilean’s cross after six minutes and the second a precise shot after a slick one-two with the south American wizard left Basel’s defence standing.

Had it not been for Basel keeper Tomas Vaclik, a rampant Arsenal could have been six up before halftime.

A pre-match poll on the BBC’s website had 66 percent of voters agreeing that Wenger should lead England out of the mess created by Allardyce’s downfall after he was secretly filmed making inappropriate comments in a Daily Telegraph sting.

Wenger said he had been surprised by the chain of events but declined to offer any clues as to what the future may hold once his current Arsenal contract runs out next year.

“I am 100 percent focussed on Arsenal until the end of the season and my priority will always be to this club,” Wenger said. “Nothing will change that.”

Wenger was also coy on whether the in-form Walcott deserved to be part of England’s starting lineup for their next World Cup qualifier against Malta this month.

“When you see the way he played tonight it’s hard to ignore him, but I will leave that to Gareth (Southgate),” smiled Wenger, referring to England’s stand-in manager.

He was more lucid on his side’s form.

“The only regret was that we did not score enough tonight considering what we created. Overall, some excellent football,” Wenger said. “The first half was top quality.”

They have now gone eight matches unbeaten since losing to Liverpool on the opening day of the season and against Basel continued where they left off in a 3-0 rout of Chelsea at the weekend courtesy of another first-half onslaught.

Walcott and Sanchez were irresistible but Arsenal’s threat came from all angles with Mesut Ozil tormenting and full backs Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin marauding forward.

Swiss Granit Xhaka, formerly of Basel, overshadowed his brother Taulant who, like his team mates, could not stem the flow of Arsenal attacks.

Vaclik denied Sanchez with an outstretched arm after he had been played in by Ozil while Bellerin and Alex Iwobi also should have extended the lead.

Basel threatened a couple of times after the break with Birkir Bjarnason, one of Iceland’s Euro 2016 heroes, curling a shot that Arsenal keeper David Ospina clawed over the bar.

Third straight Real Madrid draw frustrates Zidane in Dortmund

September 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Zinedine Zidane admitted he was frustrated at Real Madrid’s third straight draw after Andre Schuerrle’s late equaliser ensured a 2-2 stalemate at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Zidane

Real’s serene run since Zidane took charge in January has hit a minor slump in the past week as Real dropped points against Villarreal and Las Palmas to snap a 16-game winning streak in La Liga.

The defending European champions were heading towards a first win in Dortmund at the sixth attempt in the Group F contest thanks to goals by Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane.

But Schuerrle struck with three minutes left as Dortmund came back for a second time after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was credited with the goal which cancelled out Ronaldo’s early effort.

“The shame is it is three games in a row now which we have drawn,” said Real coach Zidane.

“The players played a geat match, the result is a difficult one to accept, because we deserved a bit more, but it’s not a bad result.

“I think in the first half we suffered a bit, because they pressed a lot and we knew it is a difficult place to come and play against a good team.

“I am very proud of the game we played, but when you concede three minutes from the end it hurts, especially given the effort the players put in.”

Germany winger Schuerrle came off the bench to rescue Dortmund’s unbeaten record against Real at their Signal Iduna Park stadium.

“We started very well and found enough space for our game, but in the last third, we took the wrong decisions,” said the winger.

“If you come back twice against Real Madrid, that’s a nice feeling. That will help the team to grow together.”

The 25-year-old finished with a heavily-strapped right knee and hopes to be fit for Saturday’s match against fellow Champions League side Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga.

His coach said Dortmund did well to come back twice.

“It felt good to have twice been behind, but still not to have lost, but we could have done better,” said Thomas Tuchel.

“We lost control of the game in the second half, but we showed some good morale and reacted well after their second goal.”

Madrid took the lead when Ronaldo netted his 95th Champions League goal early on.

Aubameyang was credited with the equaliser just before the break as Keylor Navas fisted out a Raphael Guerreiro free-kick only for the ball to rebound back towards goal off Varane.

But the French international defender enjoyed second-half redemption when he stabbed home on 68 minutes before Dortmund levelled in the dying stages.

“All in all, we can live with the result, but it’s never nice to concede a late goal,” said Real’s Germany midfielder Toni Kroos.

“It’s a bit annoying, but a draw is a fair result overall.

“They were very strong and controlled the ball in the first half.

“They pressed us early and we didn’t see enough of the ball in the first 45 minutes to our taste, which we were able to correct.”

James Rodriguez, who along with Gareth Bale helped to set up Ronaldo’s opener, said the draw will act as a confidence boost.

“We leave here with very good sensations, which is different to the last two games,” said the Colombia playmaker.

“They always press a lot, it is a very difficult place to come and the fair result would have been for us to win.

“We’ve drawn in the last two La Liga games. We have another game on Sunday and we need to bounce back,” he added ahead of their Spanish league match at home to Eibar on Sunday.

Real’s next Group F outing is at home to Legia Warsaw next month, while Dortmund visit Sporting, who beat the Polish champions 2-0 on Tuesday.

Wasteful PSG held by Arsenal in Group A opener

September 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Paris St Germain wasted the chance to ignite their stuttering start to the season when they were held to a 1-1 home draw by Arsenal in their Champions League Group A opener on Tuesday.

Football Soccer - Paris Saint-Germain v Arsenal - UEFA Champions League Group Stage - Group A - Parc des Princes, Paris, France - 13/9/16Arsenal's Olivier Giroud and Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti are both sent off by referee Viktor Kassai as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks onReuters / Benoit Tessier

The hosts enjoyed a dream start when Edinson Cavani put them ahead in the first minute but PSG squandered numerous opportunities and paid dearly when Alexis Sanchez swept in an equaliser late in the second half.

Cavani headed home after just 44 seconds but PSG gradually let Arsenal fight their way back into the game until Sanchez fired home from just inside the box in the 78th minute.

Both sides ended with 10 men after Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud and PSG’s Marco Verratti were shown red cards for an innocuous off-the-ball incident in stoppage time.

French champions PSG, who took only one point from their last two Ligue 1 games, next travel to Ludogorets while Arsenal will host Basel on Sept. 28. Basel and Ludogorets also drew 1-1.

“For a home game we would have preferred all three points especially since we played much better. We wasted chances but we played a good game,” said PSG’s Blaise Matuidi.

PSG were boosted by the return of centre back Thiago Silva who made his first appearance of the season after a hip injury.

Grzegorz Krychowiak started in midfield alongside Adrien Rabiot and Marco Verratti while Blaise Matuidi was fielded in an unusual position on the left wing to contain Hector Bellerin.

For Arsenal, Giroud started on the bench with Sanchez up front and Alex Iwobi on the right wing.

Cavani benefited from some loosing marking by the Arsenal centre backs to glance home Serge Aurier’s cross.

Angel Di Maria proved a constant threat, finding Rabiot in the box with a superb backheel and forcing Arsenal keeper David Ospina to a spectacular save direct from a corner.

Cavani missed a sitter in the 35th minute, shooting wide in front of an empty goal after going around Ospina.

Arsenal relied mainly on counter-attacking but started the second half by applying some pressure but lacked presence in the box with their fans chanting Giroud’s name.

The France striker came on for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 63rd minute as Sanchez went to the left wing.

PSG had two more clear chances in the 67th and 69th minutes through Aurier and Cavani.

The home side paid for their failure to kill off the game when Arsenal equalised in the 78th minute.

Alphonse Areola made a great save to deny Iwobi but the ball rebounded out and Sanchez was lurking to fire home.

Shortly afterwards Cavani missed another great chance when he failed to go around Ospina after collecting a through ball in the box, the keeper sticking out an arm to claw the ball away.

Iwobi came close to winning it for Arsenal in the 83rd but Areola stretched to his left to tip the ball away to save new coach Unai Emery’s blushes on his PSG Champions League debut.

“I think it’s a good point but we came here with our ambition and we wanted to have the three,” Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny said.

“But when we start like this it’s difficult to play.”

Kimmich shines as Bayern romp to 5-0 win over Rostov

September 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Bayern Munich crushed Champions League newcomers Rostov 5-0 with two goals from youngster Joshua Kimmich on Tuesday to kick off their Group D campaign and set a competition record with their 13th consecutive home victory.

Football Soccer - Bayern Munich v FC Rostov - Champions League - Allianz Arena, Munich, Germany - 13/9/16 Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich celebrates with his team mate Arturo Vidal after scoring a goal. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

The 21-year-old Germany midfielder struck twice in the second half after striker Robert Lewandowski converted a 28th-minute penalty and Thomas Mueller added another goal on the stroke of halftime to kill off any chance of a Russian comeback.

Kimmich’s two goals in eight minutes confirmed his fine scoring form after he grabbed his first league goal last week having netted in Germany’s World Cup qualifier earlier this month. Juan Bernat swept home Bayern’s fifth in the 90th minute.

The Russians, making their first group stage appearance, defended well for the first 20 minutes but were eventually overrun by the Germans, who beat Manchester United’s previous record of 12 consecutive home victories in the competition.

Bayern, who gave new coach Carlo Ancelotti a winning start in the competition, next play Atletico Madrid, who beat them in last season’s semi-finals and then PSV Eindhoven in their group.

The Bavarians dominated possession from the start but the Russian newcomers were disciplined at the back.

Operating with five defenders, Rostov forced the hosts to pass the ball outside the box looking for gaps and made them wait 21 minutes before the first chance fell to Lewandowski.

The Pole was awarded a penalty minutes later, sending Soslan Dzhanaev the wrong way to put his team ahead.

The Rostov goalkeeper came to the rescue 11 minutes later, denying Bayern a second goal when he punched away a point blank header by Mats Hummels.

Dzhanaev was helpless, however, when birthday boy Mueller, who turned 27, charged into the box to connect perfectly with a David Alaba cross in first half stoppage time.

The Germans picked up where they left off after the break with Kimmich, who was picked to start ahead of Xabi Alonso, timing his run to perfection and tapping in Douglas Costa’s cutback to kill off the game early in the second half.

The diminutive youngster, who enjoyed a meteoric rise last season to earn a spot in Germany’s Euro 2016 team, then rose high to head in substitute Bernat’s cross on the hour.

The Spaniard then turned scorer, slotting home in the final minute to complete a dominant performance by the Germans, who are bidding for their sixth European Cup.

Messi sets hat-trick record as Barca hit seven

September 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar combined to devastating effect as Barcelona swatted Celtic aside 7-0 at the Nou Camp to lay down a marker in Champions League Group C on Tuesday.

Football Soccer - FC Barcelona v Celtic - UEFA Champions League Group Stage - Group C - The Nou Camp, Barcelona, Spain - 13/9/16Barcelona's Luis Suarez celebrates scoring their seventh goal with Lionel Messi Reuters / Paul HannaLivepic

Messi produced a stunning display, hitting a record sixth hat-trick in the competition to hand the 1967 winners their heaviest European Cup defeat.

He smashed home a pass from Neymar in the third minute and the Argentine maestro struck again in the 27th after Celtic’s Moussa Dembele had a penalty saved by goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Neymar curled in a free kick to stretch Barca’s lead in the 50th minute before crossing for Andres Iniesta to volley the fourth.

Messi then grabbed his third goal, overtaking Real Madrid greats Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas to reach six European Cup trebles.

Neymar laid on the sixth for Suarez and the Uruguayan completed the rout with his second strike in stoppage time, capping Barca’s biggest win in the competition.

“It was a spectacle from start to finish, the team enjoyed themselves and so did the supporters. It’s a great welcome back to the Champions League,” coach Luis Enrique told a news conference.

“We did so many things well. We were great in our pressing and in recovering the ball after losing it. We were intense and it’s a great night for the fans, rounded off by the record.”

Luis Enrique reverted to an almost full-strength team after his rotation policy backfired in Saturday’s shock 2-1 La Liga defeat at home to Alaves.

The hosts quickly asserted themselves as Neymar slid the ball into Messi’s path following a short corner and the Argentine took a touch in the area before scoring.

Barca continued to exert early pressure but were almost undone when Ter Stegen tripped visiting striker Scott Sinclair.

Despite scoring a hat-trick against arch-rivals Rangers at the weekend, the 20-year-old Dembele looked short of confidence when he took the penalty and Ter Stegen dived to his right to beat his shot away.

The German international has now saved three out of four penalties in the Champions League for Barca.

Luis Enrique’s men showed no mercy with their next attack, Neymar and Messi cutting Celtic’s defence to ribbons.

Neymar played a one-two with Messi before cutting the ball back for the Argentine to score.

Neymar got the goal his superb display warranted early in the second half, fizzing a free kick beyond Celtic’s helpless goalkeeper Dorus de Vries.

Man City v Borussia Moenchengladbach postponed after heavy rain

September 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Torrential rain before kickoff meant Manchester City’s opening Champions League Group C clash with Borussia Moenchengladbach was postponed on Tuesday because of safety concerns.

General view of the big screen outside the stadium announcing that the match has been postponed. Reuters / Darren Staples

The match will now be played on Wednesday at 1845GMT.

An downpour at 1530GMT was followed by persistently heavy rain, leading referee Bjorn Kuipers and UEFA officials to carry out an inspection of the pitch 50 minutes before the scheduled 1845GMT kickoff at the Etihad Stadium.

The pitch appeared to drain well when the rain relented soon afterwards but the game was called off about 20 minutes before it was due to start.

“Torrential rainfall across Manchester throughout the evening led to flooding in the areas around the ground, which forced the decision on safety and security grounds,” a statement from the club said.

It is the second time in a month Moenchengladbach have had a game called off owing to rain after a friendly against Inter Milan on Aug. 10 suffered the same fate.

City had a friendly with Manchester United in Beijing cancelled in July as a result of heavy rain.

“We are disappointed for the fans because 90 percent of them will probably not be able to watch the re-arranged game,” said Moenchengladbach midfielder Oscar Wendt.

“But if the decision had to be taken for safety reasons then we understand it and respect it.”

Guardiola returning to Barca in Champions League

August 26, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Pep Guardiola will return to the Nou Camp in the Champions League group stage after his new club Manchester City were drawn against his former Barcelona team on Thursday in one of the toughest of the eight groups.

Pep Guardiola

Bayern Munich were given a quick chance to avenge last season’s semi-final defeat by Atletico Madrid after they were drawn together while English Premier League winners Leicester City will face Porto, Club Bruges and Copenhagen on their debut.

Elsewhere, holders and 11-times champions Real Madrid renew their recent rivalry with Borussia Dortmund.

Barca and City were drawn in Group C alongside Borussia Moenchengladbach and former European champions Celtic, with recent history clearly favouring the Catalans.

Spanish coach Guardiola, who won the Champions League twice with Barca, suffered a 5-3 aggregate defeat when he faced his old team with Bayern in the semi-finals two seasons ago.

City, who visit the Nou Camp on Oct. 19, met Barca in the round of 16 in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and lost both legs on each occasion.

Bayern, now under triple Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti, and Atletico are clear favourites to progress from Group D which also features PSV Eindhoven and Russian league runners-up Rostov who are also group-stage debutants.

Ancelotti was cautious, however, pointing out that Atletico needed a penalty shootout to beat PSV last season and that Rostov eliminated Ajax Amsterdam in the playoffs this week.

“It’s a difficult draw and we have to be careful,” he said.

Real and Dortmund should go through from Group F at the expense of Sporting and Legia Warsaw, who are back in the group stage after a 20-year absence.

Dortmund knocked out Real in the semi-finals in 2013 but the Spanish giants came out on top the following season in the last eight.

“It’s difficult but attractive. Matches against Real are becoming classics for Dortmund. We are looking forward to meeting the holders,” said Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel.

Apart from the odd heavyweight clash, many of the groups look predictable, a criticism that has increasingly been levelled at the competition in recent years.

Leicester, the other newcomers among the 32 teams, and Porto will start as favourites in Group G even though the English side are taking part for the first time.

Porto are in the group stage for the 21st time, a record they share with Real and Barca, but the double champions from Portugal have won only three of their last 16 ties against English teams in the competition.

Paris St Germain and Arsenal, who are attempting to reach the round of 16 for the 17th time in a row, are the favourites in Group A against Basel and rank Bulgarian outsiders Ludogorets although the Swiss have caused upsets in the past.

Juventus, Serie A winners for the last five seasons, face Sevilla, Olympique Lyonnais and Dinamo Zagreb in Group H with the first three likely to battle for the top two places.

For the third season running Serie A has only two teams in the group stage. The other side, Napoli, will meet Benfica, Besiktas and Dynamo Kiev in Group B.

Group E is arguably the most evenly-balanced with CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur and Monaco.

It has been widely reported in the media that organisers UEFA, under pressure from the big clubs to reform the competition, will change the format from 2018-19 to allow four guaranteed places for England, Spain, Italy and Germany.

UEFA, which has faced talk of a breakaway Super League, has said only that it is studying possible changes for the 2018-21 cycle.

McNair gifts Guardiola opening Man City win

August 14, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Sunderland debutant Paddy McNair scored an 87th-minute own goal to earn Pep Guardiola a 2-1 victory in his first Premier League game as Manchester City manager on Saturday.

Manchester

City took an early lead courtesy of Sergio Aguero’s penalty, but they failed to make their territorial dominance count and Jermain Defoe looked to have earned Sunderland a point with a second-half equaliser.

But with three minutes to play, Jesus Navas’s right-wing cross was helped on by fellow substitute Kelechi Iheanacho and McNair, who had only come on four minutes earlier, headed the ball into his own net from close range.

The Northern Ireland international signed from City’s cross-town rivals Manchester United earlier this week and his unwitting intervention denied David Moyes a creditable point on his bow as Sunderland manager.

City finished the opening day joint-top of the table with Hull City — surprise conquerors of champions Leicester City — but Guardiola will have been concerned by his players’ struggles to break Sunderland down.

The former Barcelona coach, who started with Willy Caballero in goal in place of Joe Hart, must now prepare his troops for Tuesday’s Champions League play-off first leg away to Romanian side Steaua Bucharest.

Guardiola awarded full debuts to centre-back John Stones, his 47.5 million pounds ($61 million, 55 million euros) signing from Everton, and Spanish winger Nolito, who lined up on the left.

He set his team out in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with full-backs Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy stepping into central midfield and holding player Fernandinho dropping between the centre-backs when City had the ball.

But the most eye-catching element of his first competitive team selection was the inclusion of Caballero, usually City’s reserve goalkeeper, instead of Hart.

Guardiola cast doubt on Hart’s City future on Friday, amid reports he wants to sign Marc-Andre ter Stegen from his former club Barcelona.

Caballero’s distribution was careless, but he made an important early intervention by boxing away a free-kick from Patrick van Aanholt.

Van Aanholt was in the spotlight again two minutes later, but at the other end of the pitch, as his rash sliding challenge on Raheem Sterling gave Aguero the opportunity to put City in front from 12 yards.

Kevin De Bruyne saw a free-kick fisted clear by Vito Mannone, but despite pinning Sunderland back in their own half, the hosts created few chances from open play.

Indeed, had Caballero not produced a smart reaction save to thwart Defoe, Sunderland might have levelled before half-time.

With City continuing to toil in the second half, Guardiola made two changes, sending on Navas and Fabian Delph for Nolito and David Silva.

Wahbi Khazri and Adnan Januzaj came on for Sunderland, the latter roundly booed as he made his debut following a loan move from Manchester United.

Aguero hit a snapshot wide and De Bruyne saw another free-kick repelled by Mannone, before City were hit with a sucker-punch that Guardiola must have feared.

Former City midfielder Jack Rodwell was the architect, releasing Defoe with an incisive pass that afforded the one-time England striker time to drill a shot beneath Caballero.

Guardiola sent for Iheanacho and within seven minutes of coming on he had a hand in the winning goal as his touch from Navas’s cross sent the ball cannoning off the hapless McNair’s forehead and into the net.

Ronaldo targets more Real glory after San Siro success

May 30, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Cristiano Ronaldo is hungry for even more silverware with Real Madrid after winning the Champions League on Saturday for the third time.

Soccer Football - Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final - San Siro Stadium, Milan, Italy - 28/5/16Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions LeagueAction Images via Reuters / Carl Recine

The prolific Portuguese did not look fully fit and was far from his best in the 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid but he slammed home his team’s decisive fifth penalty in the shootout to seal Real’s second Champions League final success over their local rivals in three years.

Ronaldo cited tiredness for his underwhelming display in the final, the last game of another gruelling season in which he played 48 competitive games and scored 51 goals, the sixth straight season in which he has netted over 50 times.

“I’ve played more than 4,000 minutes, and I was number one in the team, again, with the most minutes. That means a lot to me. It means I am still good,” Ronaldo said.

“In six years I’m scoring more than 50 goals, but I am asking for more. I am always at the top level. I just want to maintain that.”

Ronaldo also won the Champions League in 2008 with Manchester United and, after his seventh season with Real, he reiterated that he wants to finish his career at the Bernabeu.

“I feel good and I love to play for Real Madrid. I want to carry on,” he added.

Real forward Gareth Bale also converted his spot-kick in the shootout and provided the assist for Sergio Ramos’s opening goal.

“I thought I was going to be nervous but when I stepped up but to be honest I wasn’t nervous at all. It was only after when I got to the halfway line, I was like ‘Oh my God’,” he said.

“I was hoping they would miss and we would score but stepping up to the penalty I literally felt nothing.”

Bale said winning Europe’s biggest prize twice in his three seasons with Real Madrid vindicated his decision to leave Tottenham Hotspur for the Spanish giants in 2013 for a world record fee.

“That’s why I came to the biggest club in the world — to win Champions leagues but to win it is very difficult,” he added.

“To do it twice in three years is an amazing feat and we just have to try and  build on this now.”

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