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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.

New St. Louis stadium plan calls for state land contribution

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ST. LOUIS (AP) Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens has made it clear he’s opposed to state funding for stadiums, yet a revised proposal for a $200 million soccer stadium in St. Louis calls for the state to contribute land that’s potentially worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a city aldermanic committee delayed a vote Thursday to advance a measure putting the proposal, which also requires city voters to approve $60 million in funding, on the April ballot.

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The investor group SC STL’s proposal calls for a 22,000-seat stadium near Interstate 64 and Union Station, a key component in the group’s effort to lure a Major League Soccer expansion team. MLS officials have expressed strong interest in St. Louis, but only if a stadium is built.

Time is of the essence: The league is expected to award two new expansion teams in the fall, with play starting in 2020.

St. Louis’ project was on life support after Greitens, a Republican who took office this month, said repeatedly that he opposed taxpayer funding for stadiums, calling it “welfare for millionaires.” SC STL had been seeking $40 million in state tax credits.

But a provision of SC STL’s revised financing plan, presented at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, says the state would contribute the majority of the 24-acre project site, which is currently owned by the Missouri Department of Transportation, and perform some site clearing and infrastructure work.

The value is still being appraised, but given its location and the amount of land, it likely is worth several million dollars.

Greitens spokesman Parker Briden told The Associated Press in a statement that the governor “remains opposed to state funding to build the soccer stadium.” He did not immediately respond to a question about how the potential donation of land doesn’t conflict with Greitens’ hard-line stance.

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The first hint of compromise with the governor came in an email from SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock late Wednesday, when he wrote that a “path forward” had been reached after two weeks of meetings.

“Gov. Greitens has made it clear to us that he is very supportive of adding a new professional sports franchise to the State of Missouri, and that’s a sentiment we wholeheartedly share,” the statement said.

The stadium project also requires taxpayer help from the city. The city Ways and Means Committee heard from SC STL officials Thursday, but no vote was taken on whether to ask the full Board of Aldermen to place the issue on the April ballot. The committee is expected to reconsider the measure Monday.

SC STL would be responsible for at least $95 million of the project cost, the entire $150 million expansion fee and all maintenance costs going forward.

Bundesliga returns: Will Bayern hold off competition again?

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Germany’s top flight returns to action Friday when Bayern Munich travels to Freiburg in an attempt to keep the pressure on new boys RB Leipzig.

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For those who haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Bundesliga this season or need a bit of a refresher after several weeks away, here’s what to monitor over the next several months.

Really Big surprise Leipzig looks to keep title race going

Formed in 2009, RB Leipzig is a lot of German fans’ least favorite club after cash infusions caused a rapid rise into the top flight.

The new club is looking down at most of the haters, however. League leaders for much of the first half, Leipzig is three points shy of league leading Bayern Munich.

Bayern waxed Leipzig 3-0 before the holiday break, and the two sides won’t meet again until May 13. How long can the new boys keep up the show?

Historic relegation candidates

What does USMNT strikers Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson share besides a national team? Both are on sides that have been in Germany’s top tier longer than the players have been alive.

Wood’s Hamburg has six national titles and hasn’t seen the second tier in 54 years. That’s the longest stretch in the league, two more seasons than Bayern Munich. Hamburg is a currently third-bottom, which would force them into a relegation-promotion playoff against the third-placed team in 2.Bundesliga.

As for Johannsson, his Werder Bremen side is just three points ahead of Hamburg. Bremen has been in the top flight for 36 seasons.

Chasing the Golden Boot

Robert Lewandowski has scored the most goals in two of the past three seasons, with Alexander Meier of Eintracht Frankfurt seizing the honor in 2014-15.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is leading the pack by three goals, but is with Gabon at the Africa Cup of Nations to help open the door for the rest of the bunch.

Koln’s Anthony Modeste is second with 13, while Lewandowski has 12. Two players, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) and Sandro Wagner (Hoffenheim), have nine.

Can surprise Europe-chasers hold up?

Hertha Berlin was in 2.Bundesliga a few seasons ago, while Eintracht Frankfurt was there a season prior to that. RB Leipzig, as mentioned earlier, wasn’t even a club until 2009.

Eintracht made a Europa League run one year later, but neither was expected to be competing for a spot in Europe this season. As it stands, all three are in the mix.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 16 12 3 1 38 9 29 7-2-0 5-1-1 39
 RB Leipzig 16 11 3 2 31 15 16 6-1-0 5-2-2 36
 Hertha BSC Berlin 16 9 3 4 24 16 8 7-0-1 2-3-3 30
 Eintracht Frankfurt 16 8 5 3 22 12 10 5-3-0 3-2-3 29
 1899 Hoffenheim 16 6 10 0 28 17 11 4-5-0 2-5-0 28
 Borussia Dortmund 16 7 6 3 35 19 16 5-3-0 2-3-3 27
 1. FC Köln 16 6 7 3 21 15 6 4-4-0 2-3-3 25

Report: El Tri’s Chicharito to LAFC in 2018

Bayer Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, left, and Atletico Mineiro's Mattheus Rolden fight for possession of the ball during the first half of a Florida Cup soccer match, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP Photo/John Raoux
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It makes a lot of sense, you know?

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez will turn 30 in 2018, not a spring chicken for a striker but still plenty productive if healthy.

His national team, Mexico, will likely be revving its engines for the World Cup, and won’t be upset to have the forward playing a bit less soccer and a lot closer to home.

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And Los Angeles FC will want to make a massive mark as it seeks to butt its head into a market dominated by the LA Galaxy (and, perhaps still then, Mexico national teamer Giovani Dos Santos).

So, tell us more, Steve Brisendine of MLSSoccer.com:

“[LAFC] are going to do everything possible to sign the current Bayer Leverkusen player, whose contract ends in 2018 and could therefore leave for a reduced fee. That’s what AS.com has confirmed with sources close to the project. LAFC hope to announce their new manager this spring and dream, a little later, to do the same with Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito.”

Make it happen. Make. It. Happen. We’re already reserving his spot on our MLS fantasy teams.

Transfer rumor roundup: Jagielka, Begovic, Berahino, Zarate

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13: Saido Berahino of West Brom challenges for the ball with Phil Jagielka of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Everton at The Hawthorns on September 13, 2014 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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There’s action all over England, from those defending the goal mouth to others striving to conquer it.

[ MORE: More transfer gossip ]

— Bournemouth wants an upgrade on Artur Boruc, according to The Telegraph, and that could come in the form of Chelsea backstop Asmir Begovic.

The Cherries reportedly had a $12.5 million bid turned down by Antonio Conte, who has Thibaut Courtois in the No. 1 seat and Portugal national team backup Eduardo in the ranks (along with three keepers on loan and young goalie Mitchell Beanie).

— Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger shut the door on acquiring West Ham wantaway Dimitri Payet according to Sky Sports’ Transfer Centre:

“We have many players offensively who can play in this position. You are interested by the quality of the player but there needs to be a need as well, and we have no need in this domain.”

— Clubs in need of experienced Premier League backs need look no further than Everton, where manager Ronald Koeman has admitted that England international Phil Jagielka could leave Goodison Park. The 34-year-old center back has 40 caps for England and has made 337 appearances for Everton. He could be a massive upgrade for Sunderland if David Moyes is up for a reunion.

— Stoke City chairman Peter Coates says a purchase of Saido Berahino from West Brom is not contingent on a sale of Bojan Krkic. The latter has been linked to Middlesbrough.

— Mauro Zarate may be returning the Premier League. Watford boss Walter Mazzarri has been largely let down by his strike corps as Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have taken steps back this season. Could $4 be enough to bring the ex-West Ham and QPR man from Fiorentina to Vicarage Road? Zarate has four goals in nine matches for La Viola, and has nine goals in 40 Premier League matches.