Iker Casillas, Lionel Messi

Offshore drilling, Spain: at Barcelona 2, Real Madrid 2

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Man of the match: It’s hard to separate the match’s two biggest stars, each posting braces, but Cristiano Ronaldo got his goals on the road, helping his team to a valuable point at their arch rivals.

In the 23rd minute, Ronaldo blasted a left-footed shot into the small, near-post window he was generously given at Victor Valdes, staking Real and early lead. Then, with his team down 2-1 in the second half, a burst from the left wing sent him past Martin Montoya and behind Barcelona’s defense, where he put a Mesut Özil pass behind Victor Valdes for the point-winning goal.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • Real Madrid played as well as they have at the Nou Camp during the post-Frank Rijkaard era. They were clearly the better side for over the first half hour. Although Barcelona was still controlling the ball, the decisiveness of Real’s play left the Catalans looking less confident than normal.
  • And perhaps they had reason to worry, given who Tito Vilanova was forced to start at the back. Carles Puyol was out. So was Gerard Piqué, which make the decision to start Alex Song on the bench even more surprising. Instead, Vilanova dropped Sergio Busquets into central defense to play along side Javier Mascherano.
  • Well, kinda. In the defensive phase, Busquets would drop into a back four. In transition and attack, Barcelona’s normal defensive midfielder was playing in front of the line, even occasionally venturing into attack. When Barcelona scored their equalizer in the 31st minute, it was Busquets’ presence in the box that helped create chaos.
  • By the second half, Busquets was staying out of the defense. Adriano (on the left) and Montoya (right) were flanking Mascherano in a back three.
  • Its hard to say whether Barcelona’s defensive tactics contributed to the first goal. Daniel Alves (who started at right back but quickly came off) was playing far more narrow than we’re used to seeing him, perhaps trying to maintain a narrow back three until Busquets made up the numbers. Alves came into the middle to help on Karim Benzema, leaving Ronaldo alone after Benzema fed a ball into the left of the box.
  • Real’s second goal could have also been a product of the makeshift defense. Was Montoya’s slow reaction and Mascherano’s inability to cover a product of the ad hoc tactics?
  • When you dominate possession, you can take more chances in defense. The opposition’s going to have less time to exploit you. Today, Real Madrid only had 30 percent of the ball.
  • That would have ben enough if José Mourinho’s team was executing their counters with their usual efficiency. Something was off today, though. They lacked their usual sharpness. None of their attackers were getting the ball in dangerous spots. Ángel Di María had a very quiet day.
  • Benzema, however, did not. Real’s No. 9 had two very good chances in the first half, one of which went off the post. Given Real’s strong start and Benzema;s opportunities, Los Merengues should have been up two when Messi equalized.
  • That equalizer came in the 31st minute, when poor defending on a Pedro Rodríguez cross left Lionel Messi with an easy finish from inside the six-yard box. The most notable gaff: Pepe elevating only to lose his balance and fall to the ground as the deflected cross dropped right to Messi.
  • Early in the second half, Messi completed Barcelona’s turnaround, drawing a foul just above the arc before beating Iker Casillas with a beautiful dipping shot.
  • The culprit on the play was Xabi Alonso, who never seems to have an impact in these matches. His lunging tackle on Messi was always destined to draw a whistle.
  • Alonso lacks the foot speed to keep up with Messi and Andres Iniesta (who had a great game, also). In the game for his passing, Alonso’s only contributions seem to be bad fouls and yellow cards. Mourinho would have been better served by Michael Essien or Luka Modric.
  • Even though Ronaldo would find an equalizer, Barcelona controlled the second half. They were finally able to bring Messi into the match, building trough him throughout the match’s final 35 minutes. This led to numerous chances where Messi’s dribbling would push back the defense before he played it left to Iniesta, who would then go wide to Jordi Alba (playing as a left winger) for try to hit a runner through Real’s line.
  • After bringing Essien on for Di María late, Real’s defense was able to hold out, the big moment of danger coming when Pedro tested the cross bar.
  • Overall it was a great Clasico, with only a late winner keeping it from being one of the series’ best.
  • As it concerns the standings, the draw may serve Barcelona well, having carried an eight-point lead on Real Madrid into this match. With only seven rounds gone, however, it’s too early to tell the significance of Barça’s lead. If Real Madrid wins at the Bernabeu, today’s result will look like points lost.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Bacary Sagna of Manchester City clears the ball from Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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  • Man City leads all-time 53W-29D-28L
  • Leicester took 4 of 6 pts last season
  • MCFC won previous four

To cure what ails, Leicester City has to knock off one of the top contenders to its Premier League throne: Manchester City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC and NBCSports.com).

There are some advantages for Leicester, though, as Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are suspended for their red cards picked up the loss to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola used Pablo Zabaleta next to Fernando in the UCL draw with Celtic, and looks set for the same come Saturday.

Leicester rested the majority of its starters in a 5-0 loss at Porto this week, following up a 2-1 setback at Sunderland that left the champs just two points ahead of the 18th and 19th placed clubs in the PL.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri on the task at hand: “I was waiting for a period like this. Now it’s important to react with a big effort together from the team. That is my focus now. We have to be focused on these matches until Christmas Day. We have to get points. We need points and we have to fight. This part of the season is our key moment. I think every match gives us an opportunity. We have to fight. I repeat, we have to fight.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola on Zabaleta’s positional change“But I think Pablo Zabaleta can play in the middle – he is very experienced and he can play there as he did very well against Celtic. I think in the last years of his career he’ll play more in the middle and it gives us another option.”

Prediction

As much as the injuries hurt Man City, there’s certain harm in the wounded unit that fell 3-1 to Chelsea. We believe the Foxes will strike, but Kelechi Iheanacho has proven more than a suitable fill-in for Aguero. Man City 2-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 15

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Week 15 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 15 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 West Brom – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Leicester City 1-3 Man City – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Swansea City 2-3 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Watford 0-1 Everton – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-1 Middlesbrough – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Man United 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Hull City 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]