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.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

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“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.