Cristiano Ronaldo,  Lionel Messi, Xabi Alonso

Messi, Ronaldo shootout leaves both men standing

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Before Sunday, the rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo had been a media construct – a fabrication that helped create the kind of dramatic headlines that drive ratings and win page views. People who follow the game know this, but the debate — Ronaldo or Messi, Messie or Ronaldo — gave editors the justification. Even if they aren’t exactly Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird rivals, their stature in world soccer makes discussion inevitable.

That discussion’s set for a new level after Sunday’s theatrics in Barcelona. The final score may say Barcelona and Real Madrid drew, 2-2, but the result everybody will be talking about is the battle of the stars: Lionel Messi 2, Cristiano Ronaldo 2.

It’s hard to believe in that in the 21 Clasicos since Ronaldo joined Real Madrid, this is the first time each icon’s scored twice in the same game. We were expecting matches like these when Real bought Ronaldo, but three years and 21 matches into the era, we finally have some perspective on how special and rare these games are going to be.

How often can they really happen? Even for Messi and Ronaldo, multi-goal games are uncommon, but for each to have one in the same Clasico? We shouldn’t have expected so much.

That’s what makes today’s match so amazing – both men with braces, in a Clasico, in a game where nobody else scored. It was just them, on their own, with complete responsibility for whatever their team was going to do. True, Karim Benzema and Pedro Rodríguez each found the woodwork, but when they didn’t it, it only reinforced the feeling: It was going to be Messi and Ronaldo or nobody for Spain’s Big Two.

But while Messi and Ronaldo may have dominated on the scoresheet, there were large stretches of play where neither mattered. For the first 30 minutes, Messi was practically shut out. Only a collapse from Real’s defense in the 31st minute brought him into the game, giving Messi a chance to pounce on a loose ball in Iker Casillas’s six-yard box. Before then, Barcelona couldn’t convert their dominance of possession into chances for their star.

And with that possession advantage, Ronaldo was left to collect dust on Real’s wing. Such is life in the Clasicos. When Barça holds the ball for 60, 65 percent of the time, all you can do is be patient and have faith. Wait for Sami Khedira or Xabi Alonso to win a ball, then burst. The rest of the time, Ronaldo stayed wide and on the left, forced to wait for whatever isolated chances Real could create.

Sunday, he only got two, but Ronaldo took them both. His first half opener came as Daniel Alves was drawn inside, allowing Karim Benzema to find him in the left of the penalty area. Later, Mesut Özil found him testing Barcelona’s trap. A left-footed blast on the first, a quick release on the second, and Ronaldo had his brace. Those were his only chances of the night.

Messi saw a lot more of the ball, but he had even fewer chances. The first goal came from chaos – pure luck and opportunism. The second was from a dead ball, Messi dipping a perfect ball behind the Real wall, into the right of Casillas’s goal from 24 yards out. Messi may have dictated play for the match’s final 35 minutes, but the scoring chances were still nearly impossible to find.

And while it may have been more fun to see each star get six, seven chances on goal, their efficiency somehow made the match more special. There was no hesitation, no waste. Each man had to convert the few chances he saw. After Ronaldo equalized in the 66th minute, you knew whoever got the next chance would win the match.

But it never came. The final chance fell to Pedro, who nailed the cross bar near full time.

Perhaps the draw only raises the stakes. The next time there’s a shootout (if there is a next time), both men will know. They’ll need to empty their chambers. If there’s going to be a winner, they’re going to have to take the shot.

Xavi backs Dybala, Verratti to succeed at Barcelona over Pogba

TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 24:  Paulo Dybala (R) of Juventus FC celebrates after scoring the opening goal with team mate Paul Pogba during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and AS Roma at Juventus Arena on January 24, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
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With Paul Pogba linked with a possible summer move to Barcelona worth more than $100 million, one legend at Camp Nou believes Pogba may not be the right signing.

[ MORE: Top 5 PL storylines ]

After making more than 700 appearances for Barcelona, Xavi knows the club as well as anyone, and he prefers Pogba’s Juventus teammate Paulo Dybala for a move to the Catalan giants.

Xavi also praised the play of Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti, saying that while Pogba is a star player, Dybala and Verratti have “Barca DNA.”

There’s two players I really like, both of whom I think have Barca’s DNA. They are Marco Verratti and Paulo Dybala.

They are amazing and, thanks to their quality and style of play, would easily integrate into the [Barca] machine. I see them as future stars at the club.

[Pogba] is a great player. He’ll be a star for France as he is for Juve, but I see him with a different game to ours.

Both Pogba and Dybala are 22-years-old, while Verratti is 23. All three players have been among the elite young talents in the world, with Pogba earning the most praise of the group and always linked with a big-money move to Europe’s top clubs.

[ RELATED: Messi named La Liga Player of the Month for first time in career ]

Dybala is enjoying a breakout season at Juventus, currently with 13 goals and eight assists in Serie A play. In Paris, Verratti is part of a PSG side that hasn’t lost in 25 matches and holds a 24-point lead at the top of the table.

Vincent Kompany set to make Manchester City return this weekend

during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad Stadium on January 18, 2015 in Manchester, England.
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Vincent Kompany is set to make his first appearance for Manchester City since Boxing Day as the defender has returned from injury.

City’s captain and center-back missed more than six weeks with a calf injury before Christmas, and then reaggravated the injury just minutes into his return at the end of December.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

However, Kompany has been back in training and manager Manuel Pellegrini said he is fit to play this weekend when City host Tottenham in a huge top-four matchup.

We’ll see what the starting XI is tomorrow – we’re not just thinking about one player and one game, we’re involved in a lot of competitions. Maybe we have a lot of criticism when we don’t play well but I’m happy with the squad over the whole season.

Every player must play a game when they’re 100%. Vincent has worked for three weeks with no problems. He played 45 minutes in a friendly game against the under-21s and I think he’s ready to play.

Kompany’s presence in the City back-line has been pivotal this season. In the eight Premier League games Kompany has started, City have kept seven clean sheets. In the 18 matches without the big Belgian in the starting lineup, City have kept just five.

[ RELATED: Diego Costa suffers broken nose in Chelsea training ]

With City just a point behind Tottenham, Kompany returns from injury just in time for one of the biggest matches of the season. Tasked with slowing down Harry Kane and Spurs’ high-flying attack, Kompany’s play could prove crucial to the Citizens getting a result.

Premier League Preview: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United

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  • CFC unbeaten under Hiddink (W5, D6)
  • Newcastle have just 6 away goals all season
  • Diego Costa: 6 goals in his last 7 PL matches

Chelsea look to extend their unbeaten streak under Guus Hiddink to 12 matches on Saturday when the Blues host relegation-threatened Newcastle (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra).

The Blues’ last loss came under Jose Mourinho in December.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra ]

Chelsea are up to 13th on the table, currently riding a run of 11 matches unbeaten in all competitions. Guus Hiddink is yet to suffer a loss after taking over for his second stint at Stamford Bridge in December, although draws have kept Chelsea from climbing further up the table. Diego Costa has had the hot-hand with six goals in his last seven appearances, but the Spanish striker will be forced to play with a mask after suffering a broken nose in training.

[ MORE: Hiddink has “no fear” of playing youngsters in Zouma’s absence ]

For Newcastle, the Magpies sit 17th on the table just one point above the drop. Their away form has hurt the club all season, as Steve McClaren‘s men have scored a league-low six goals on the road this year. The Magpies are coming off of a win over West Brom, and supporters will be hoping the club’s new January signings continue to produce. Seydou Doumbia could make his Premier League debut on Saturday, which would be a massive boost to the attack.

What they’re saying

Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink: “The status of being unbeaten sounds good but realistically we would have wished to have more victories, especially at home. And we have an opportunity to do so against Newcastle. They improved their squad with substance, some good signings, and they are more competitive now.”

Newcastle boss Steve McClaren: “In our home games we are starting to get a consistency in our performance and the way we play. We need to start transferring that to our away games and picking up points away from home – we owe it to the fans.”

Prediction

Newcastle have just two wins in their last 18 league matches away from home, and I don’t see that trend changing this weekend. Chelsea have looked a new team with Guus Hiddink in charge, and they stay unbeaten under the Dutchman. Chelsea 2-1 Newcastle United.

Pochettino enjoying best spell of career ahead of massive clash at Man City

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23:  Mauricio Pochettino (R) Manager of Tottenham Hotspur is seen on arrival at the stadium prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur at Selhurst Park on January 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Mauricio Pochettino is getting ready for one of his biggest matches in charge at Tottenham, but he’s not letting the pressure get to him.

The Spurs’ boss talked down the importance of Sunday’s match against Manchester City (Watch live, 11:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra), and went on to say he is currently having the most enjoyable time of his career.

[ WATCH: Full PL match replays ]

Pochettino has Tottenham sitting second on the table, and they travel to the Etihad this weekend for a clash against fourth-placed Manchester City, who sit one point behind Spurs.

When asked if this weekend’s match could be a decisive result in the title race, Pochettino was unwilling to admit it was anything more than three points in a long campaign. However, when asked about the season as a whole, the Argentinian manager said he was having great fun at White Hart Lane, responding “Is it my most enjoyable time of career? Yes, maybe yes if I’m honest.”

[ MORE: Who are the Premier League title favorites? ]

Pochettino’s work at Tottenham has made him one of the most well-respected managers in the Premier League, with some reports tabbing him as the potential future boss of Manchester United.

Spurs have won six on the spin in all competitions, and will be confident facing a City side they smashed 4-1 earlier this season. With leaders Leicester facing Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham could see themselves just two points off the pace if results go their way.