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Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: Barcelona 3, at Spartak Moscow 0

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Barcelona had their easiest match of the Champions League season, their long trip to Moscow met with little resistance in a 3-0 win over floundering Spartak Moscow.

With the victory, Barcelona has clinched a spot in the tournament’s second round. Should Celtic lose at the Estadio de Luz later today, Barcelona will clinch first place in Group G.

Right back Dani Alves opened the scoring in the 16th minute, his half-volley of a blocked Lionel Messi shot finding the lower left corner from 19 yards out.

Before halftime, Messi added his fourth and fifth goals of the competition, settling the matter before the sides went into intermission.

Man of the Match: With two first half goals, Lionel Messi raised his 2012 all-competition total to 80, five behind Gerd Müller’s all-time record. His first was a right-footed finish from the edge of the area, converting after Spartak keeper Andrey Dikan had blocked an Andres Iniesta shot. The second saw Messi take a Pedro Rodríguez pass and dribble around Dikan before finishing into an open net from just inside the six-yard box.

Messi has up to 10 matches remaining in 2012. If his usage pattern holds, he’ll appear in almost all of them. With a hot streak, Messi could eclipse 100 goals.

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

For better and worse, Barcelona looked their normal selves.

Let’s concentrate on the good with this bullet point, because an elegant display from Barcelona shouldn’t be overshadowed. Spartak’s passive defensive posture meant Barça wasn’t pushed to the frantic extremes that bring Barcelona’s best, Barça was allowed enough time on the ball to complete a number of uncharacteristically long, perfectly executed passes, particularly during their first half push. Xavi chips over the top, Messi swinging the ball wide for Iniesta, long probing sliders picking out gaps in the Spartak defense – Barça was given a chance complement their tiki taka.

While those moments were abnormal for Barcelona, the tenor of the performance wasn’t. After Dani Alves’ opening goal, Barça seemed to play the match at three-quarter speed, Emery’s approach allowing Barcelona’s bursts to augment out of their spans of calm control. Never bothered to break their gallop, Barcelona pranced to a typically easy victory.

Defending wide continues to be a problem for Barcelona.

Barça has always been vulnerable behind Dani Alves, but in the past, Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets have been able to mitigate that danger. With Eric Abidal at left back, Barcelona were always able to do an adequate job compensating for the right winger they employ in defense.

Now Jordi Alba’s at left back, and while he’d no Alves, he does push forward farther, more often, and with more persistence than Abidal. That leaves both flanks vulnerable, and without an Abidal-esque presence on the right, Barcelona doesn’t have as much support when the defense is forced to flatten out and cover the width of the pitch. Add in Puyol’s injury problems and you have a much more vulnerable team.

One first half counter from Spartak served as a perfect illustration. The movement started down the left (Alves’s side) before a long ball switched right found a man on Alba’s flank. The defense stretched, Spartak was able to find a player for an open half-volley in the middle of the penalty area.

Abidal is due back at the beginning of the year, though it’s unclear how much (or if) he’ll play. Puyol was on the bench today, as was Alex Song. Barcelona has options. They just need to decide how vulnerable they’re willing to be.

Time to pass some judgments on Unai Emery.

Spartak has been generally unimpressive under new coach Unai Emery, but since their middling form had yet to cost them anything major, it was best to reserve judgment on the former Valencia man. After today’s loss, though, Spartak can’t advance to Champions League’s knockout round. If Benfica defeats Celtic later today, Spartak’s out of Europe.

Combined with a fifth-place standing in Russia (nine wins through 16 rounds), the Unai Emery era has been a worrying one for the People’s Team. In a Russian soccer culture that’s not shy about cutting bait with a coaching commitment, Emery’s putting himself in (more) trouble.

Spartak’s performance today at the Lizhniki was lacking in everything. There no inspiration in a team whose tournament sat in the balance. There was a hint of a plan (dispossess high, counter quick, otherwise absorb), but with no spirit backing it, the approach was set to fail. The backline seemed ill-prepared. The squad took a 2010 approach to 2012 Barcelona.

Other than “more time,” it’s hard to make an argument supporting Emery, if you call “more time” supportive.

Packaged for takeaway

  • José Jurado was useless today. Deployed as the attacking midfielder in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 formation, he had no impact. He was a wasted man when the team could have used more of a presence in front of the defense.
  • Spartak needed that presence because deep midfielders Rafael Carioca and Kim Kallström did little to prevent Barcelona from picking out holes in the defense.
  • At least, that’s what happened in the first half. With Barcelona up three at intermission, the second half was inconsequential. Spartak improved over the last 45 minutes, though it would have been difficult not to.

Van Gaal doubles down media criticism; Rooney won’t Dab

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24:  Wayne Rooney (L) and Louis van Gaal manager of Manchester United in discussion during the Manchester United training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Group B match against PSV Eindhoven at Aon Training Complex on November 24, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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Louis Van Gaal was asked whether he really, truly believes that media members are making up stories about his club and its interest in Jose Mourinho (amongst other things).

His answer is not open to interpretation: “Yes.”

From the BBC:

“I said it many times,” he said. “A lot of media is inventing stories. You don’t have to answer.”

[ MORE: Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. VIII ]

LVG says the club remains focused on the Top Four, and that a string of wins can help them make the Top Four due intra-Top Four clashes like this weekend’s Arsenal-Leicester and Man City-Spurs matches.

Captain Wayne Rooney has expressed similar optimism, noting that the Red Devils have handled their business in recent history at Sunderland.

One thing Rooney was negative on? Jesse Lingard‘s use of the Dab celebration. Rooney also revealed that he’s not exactly up on current events.

From ManUtd.com:

“He’s been trying to get me to do it with him. Maybe if I was ten years younger I’d do it with him,” said the 30-year-old. “I think it’s something going around on the internet and I suppose Jesse’s jumped on the bandwagon!”

WATCH: Premier League stream links, TV schedule – Week 26

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Week 26 of the 2015-16 Premier League season is here. Get ready for some huge battles at the top and bottom of the table.

[ MORE: Top 5 storylines to look for in PL ]

It all kicks off at the Stadium of Light on Saturday as Sunderland host Manchester United (Watch live, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). Sam Allardyce‘s side are four points adrift of safety and badly need a win to help their battle against relegation. As for United, they’re six points off the top four. Plenty on the line. Then it is Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion at Goodison Park (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with the Toffees aiming to keep their top six hopes alive against a struggling Baggies outfit. At the same time relegation haunted Norwich City try to snap a five-game losing streak as they host West Ham United at Carrow Road (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra). With star man Dimitri Payet signing a new contract in the week, can he guide the Hammers back up to fifth with a victory?

[ WATCH: Premier League via Live Extra ]

Rounding things off on Saturday, Chelsea welcome Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) to Stamford Bridge with Guus Hiddink’s side 11 games unbeaten in all competitions but still only seven points above the drop zone. If the relegation-battling Magpies get a win away at Chelsea — they have won five of their last nine games against the Blues — they will only be three points behind the defending champs.

On Sunday, a huge day awaits and kicking it all off is the big one at the Emirates Stadium: Arsenal vs. Leicester City (Watch live, 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). The Foxes are five points clear of the Gunners and all of a sudden are the heavy favorites to win the Premier League. Can they follow up a win at Man City by beating Arsenal? Then we travel to Villa Park as Aston Villa host Liverpool (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with Remi Garde’s men desperate for points. Villa won last time out but are still eight points off safety with 13 games to go. As for Liverpool, their faint top four hopes are fading fast as Jurgen Klopp‘s side continue to struggled with injuries up top and in defense.

Rounding off Week 26 is another huge top four clash as third-place Manchester City host second-place Tottenham Hotspur (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) at the Etihad Stadium. Manuel Pellegrini‘s side will have Vincent Kompany back fit and if they’re going to stay in the title race winning this and jumping ahead of Spurs is vital. Can Mauricio Pochettino‘s team prove they’re the real deal?

You can watch every single second of every single game live online via NBC Sports Live Extra and theNBC Sports Live Extra App.

If you’re looking for full-event replays of Premier League games, you can find them here. They are available soon after the final whistle, but rights limit us to a certain number each week. Looking for game highlights? Try this. Here’s your full TV schedule for the coming days. Enjoy.

FULL TV SCHEDULE

Saturday

7:45 a.m. ET: Sunderland vs. Manchester United – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Norwich City vs. West Ham United – USA [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Everton vs. West Bromwich Albion – NBCSN [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Bournemouth vs. Stoke City – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Crystal Palace vs. Watford – Premier League Extratime [STREAM]
10 a.m. ET: Swansea City vs. Southampton – Premier League Extratime [STREAM
12:30 p.m. ET: Chelsea vs. Newcastle United – NBC [STREAM]

Sunday

7 a.m. ET: Arsenal vs. Leicester City – NBCSN [STREAM]
9:05 a.m. ET: Aston Villa vs. Liverpool – NBCSN [STREAM]
11:15 a.m. ET: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur – NBCSN [STREAM]

Premier League Power Rankings, Vol. VIII: Taking stock before a massive weekend

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There’s a trick with the idea of power rankings in a league with a balanced schedule, and that’s identifying who’s performed the best in recent matches without looking at what lies ahead.

That’s something that could’ve kept someone from holding Leicester City down their given list.

Yet the idea of power rankings is to identify who is faring the best right now, and would be picked to finish first should a given season’s slate start today. Still, you can’t ignore the table as it stands and the likely fate of a season.

[ MORE: All of this season’s Premier League Power Rankings ]

TEAM RANKING Up/Down
source: 1 Leicester City: Learned from the late December gauntlet, where they went 2-1-1 against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Man City. This time, the Foxes have beaten the Reds and City, and can make it 3-0 against Arsenal on Sunday. Believe.
source: 2 UP 5 Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs are riding high after beating up four struggling clubs, and face a massive test in a Man City side that, well, hasn’t beaten anyone of form or merit in a while, either.
source: 3 UP 9 Manchester United: It really is a season of “What ifs?” for Louis Van Gaal‘s crew, which has lost just once since Boxing Day. Making lots of dough, too.
source: 4 DOWN 1 Manchester City: United’s derby rivals need to get off the mat after their shockingly lethargic 3-1 loss to Leicester City. Bring on Spurs.
source: 5 DOWN 3 Arsenal: Beating Bournemouth snapped a four-match winless skid. A defeat of Leicester on Sunday is as close to “must” territory as you can get with this much left in a season. Will they take part in the MLS All Star Game as reigning PL champions?
source: 6 UP 8 Southampton: Ronald Koeman‘s side looks a lot like the Saints we remember from last season, having four wins and a draw in its last five matches including a 1-0 win that included a long while with 10 men.
source: 7 UP 4 Everton: Back-to-back 3-0 wins for the Toffees have Roberto Martinez’s men within six points of fifth place.
source: 8 UP 7 West Ham United: Last weekend’s failure to break down 10-man Saints is alarming, but Slaven Bilic‘s side is legit. Still, they need to erase performances like that, and the 2-1 loss to Newcastle a few weeks back. Great look to lock up Dimitri Payet for the long term.
source: 9 UP 8 Chelsea: Badly need to turn draws into wins, but the embarrassment of being booed after the Jose Mourinho sacking has turned into cheers for, well, actually doing their jobs. With Kurt Zouma out, is it already Miazga time at Stamford Bridge?
source: 10 DOWN 2 Liverpool: Five points from their last six matches should have them further down the list, but frankly no one’s daring us to put them above the Reds. But Daniel Sturridge could help them rise.
source: 11 DOWN 6 Watford: Four losses in six, but deserved better in a 1-0 loss to Spurs. That followed a win and a draw, so perhaps the Hornets have steadied themselves.
source: 12 UP 6 Swansea City: Unbeaten in four, but the 1-1 draws against West Brom and Crystal Palace weren’t what they could’ve been.

source:
13 DOWN 7 Stoke City: At the risk of over-simplifying, turns out Geoff Cameron is really important to the Potters. Stoke is 1W-1D-3L since the USMNT defender went down, and has allowed three goals in losses to Leicester, Manchester United and Everton. The win? Against struggling Norwich City.
source: 14 DOWN 5 Bournemouth: Doing enough to survive this first season back in the Premier League.
source: 15 DOWN 11 Crystal Palace: Alan Pardew‘s Eagles are wandering through the desert right now, with losses to Villa and Bournemouth contributing to a six-match run with a single point. Now closer to 19th than 4th.

source:  
16 UP 3 Newcastle United: Jonjo Shelvey looks like an inspired signing, and the former Swans midfielder has assists in four matches for the Magpies. Up next is a trip to Chelsea.
source: 17 DOWN 7 West Bromwich Albion: The Baggies have scored one goal in their last four matches, and Tony Pulis‘ charges are just six points above the drop zone.

source:
18 UP 2 Aston Villa: Still dead last with a dire schedule looming, you can’t say Remi Garde’s players have quit. Points in four of five including wins over Norwich and Palace.
source: 19 Sunderland: Injuries are piling up around the Stadium of Light, and Sam Allardyce may need USMNT back DeAndre Yedlin to be a big part of their push for safety. At least big January signing Wahbi Khazri looks legit.
source: 20 DOWN 4 Norwich City: The backline looks quite leaky again, as their five-match losing skid includes the following score lines: 2-0, 3-0, 5-4, 3-0, 3-1.

Lampard urges Chelsea to sign Terry; If not, would buy his plane ticket to MLS

during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on January 31, 2015 in London, England.
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John Terry is the last of the old guard at Chelsea, and club legend Frank Lampard thinks he deserves to stay at Stamford Bridge.

Speaking with the web site ShortList.com, Lampard also said he’d welcome the defender to Major League Soccer with open arms, and checkbook.

[ MORE: Premier League’s Top Five story lines for Week 26 ]

Saying he’d “I’ll get his plane ticket and get him over here,” the New York City FC midfielder called Terry “quite comfortably” the best defender he’d ever played with during his career.

From Shortlist.com:

“What John offers is a link with the fans and an appreciation of the young players who he would want to help come through. He’s Mr Chelsea. Those are the sorts of players you need at the club. Without telling the club what to do, I think Chelsea are looking to change the old nucleus we had, what with myself, Ashley [Cole], Didier [Drogba] and Petr [Cech] gone, John’s almost the last one standing. But I don’t think he’s going to be an issue with that – he’ll even help the transition with helping the younger players.”

Even given Terry’s dicey at times off-field reputation, there’s merit to that story (After all, you can’t be okay with Ryan Giggs guiding the youth of Manchester and opposed to Terry leading at the Bridge).

As for MLS, plenty of England’s old guard is here already. From the 2010 World Cup roster alone, Ashley Cole and Steven Gerrard are in L.A., Lampard’s in New York City, and Shaun Wright-Phillips is with RBNY. That’s already half the number of U.S. players in MLS who played in the 2010 tournament.