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Finalists Toluca, Tijuana hope surprise Liga MX campaigns end with title

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Club Tijuana made life difficult on themselves, bringing a 2-0 deficit to León back to Estadio Caliente ahead of Sunday’s final leg of their Liga MX semifinal. Thankfully for the league’s Cinderella story — a fairy tale that’s evolved over the last two years — it only took 68 minutes for Fidel Martínez and Dubier Riascos to put them back on course. When substitute Ricard Ruiz put the tie out of reach with a late goal, Tijuana was in their first Primera Division final.

The weight of the occasion wasn’t lost on Xolos.

“It’s really a great feeling for the group,” striker Alfredo Moreno said after the game. “We wanted it. We wanted to be in the final, and it showed in the game. We’re very happy.”

“[T]hey played a superior match from beginning to end,” head coach Antonio Mohamed said of his players. “[It] was 3-0, but it would have been five or six.”

The only misgiving for fans of the league was seeing the league’s northern-most club, in only their third tournament since being promoted last summer, had to go through another recently elevated squad to make the final. León, the five-time league champions who had spent 10 years in the second division moving up this summer, saw their Cinderella story end within sight of the border.

That they, along with Tijuana, spent the season at the top of the table made the Apertura as an indictment of Mexico’s promotion-relegation policies. Each summer, only one team is promoted into the 18-team first division, and since the Ascenso uses a spring playoff to decide the new Liga MX club, there’s no guaranteed that the best team will move up. Club León had to go through five failed playoffs before winning their return to the Primera, and the team that won this season’s second division Apertura (Necaxa, by seven points), was eliminated Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s Dorado in that Liguilla’s semifinals.

Had Tijuana met León in the Primera’s final, it would have been vindication for all the second division clubs struggling to make it through Mexico’s bottleneck. Instead Toluca, the qualification stage champions, made it though, holding off a ferocious América comeback on Sunday to win 3-2, reaffirmed the surprise nature of this season’s opening tournament.

In recent seasons, the Apertura has been the more difficult to Mexico’s two tournaments, and in that sense, it’s also been more predictable. Teams at full strength coming off of a summer’s rebuilding came concentrate on the domestic competition. Come the Clausura, teams will devote attentions to CONCACAF’s Champions League and Copa Libertadores, often merely trying to survive the qualification stage with the hopes of being able to concentrate on the Liguilla. Monterrey, two-time defending confederation champions, have won two of the last three Aperturas but, as they’ve driven toward their CONCACAF titles, have been unable to win a Clausura.

That Toluca, who had not been a factor since Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre was in charge, finished first was a surprise, albeit one fans had 17 rounds to get used to. Under Chepo, Toluca won two titles from 2008-2010 before losing their coach to Mexican national team. De la Torre’s successors — Sergio Lugo, Héctor Eugui, and Wilson Graniolatti — had failed to return Toluca to the postseason, let alone significance. Though the Diablos Rojos have won 10 league titles, few thought they’d get their chance at a record-tying 11th this soon.

It took another of Liga MX’s most renown coaches, Enrique Meza, to get the Red Devils back on track. In two previous spells with Toluca, Meza won three of his four career titles. More recently, Meza spent six tournaments at Cruz Azul but failed to make a final, something he achieved in his first tournament back in Toluca.

“I do not play, I just run the team,” Meza said, asked if his experience will be an advantage against Tijuana after his team eliminated América.

His team, however, retains 10 players who won at least one title under de la Torre. Sinha, the team’s captain, has been with the club since Meza’s first tenure in Toluca. And let’s not forget those 10 titles. While both finalists qualify as surprises, one team has certainly been here before. Tijuana still carries the aura of upstarts.

Come Sunday, that upstarts’ aura could be gone. Then, Xolos will be at Toluca, having hosted the Red Devils in Thursday’s first leg at Estadio Caliente. If they show the same focus that brought them back from two down to León, Mexico will have a new, first-time Champion. If not, Toluca will tie Chivas for the most titles in Mexican history.

Report: Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Antonio Conte agree truce

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates victory with Diego Costa after the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea at Riverside Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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The feud is over. For now.

[ MORE: New rules stop Costa move

After Diego Costa was left out of Chelsea’s traveling squad for the win at Leicester City last weekend, he has been training on his own amid reports of a back injury which his manager Antonio Conte

It seems very likely that this situation was about much more than a back injury as Costa and Conte reportedly had a bust-up on the training ground, while links surrounding a big-money move to China continue as Costa’s agent, Jorge Mendes, was seen visiting owners of Chinese Super League clubs last week.

A report in The Times states that Costa and Conte have decided to put their differences aside and the Spanish international is back in contention to start against Hull City on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

It was also stated that although everyone is buddy-buddy for now, Costa could still leave in the summer as his volatile nature is far from impressing Conte who continues to stamp his authority not only on the players but the entire club.

It’s clear Conte is boss but he can’t have Costa undermining him as seems to have been the case over the past week and it was also the case earlier on in the season when Conte demanded Costa remained on the pitch.

That said, Costa’s importance to Chelsea can’t be understated as he is the join-top goalscorer in the Premier League with 14 goals and he’s added another five assists this season. With reports linking Chelsea with a summer move for Alvaro Morata, it appears Conte is already trying to plan for life without Costa.

Can the Blues win the PL title this season without Costa’s goal and presence up top? Despite a seven-point lead, probably not. That’s why Conte calling a truce in his instance makes sense.

That said, he now has six months or so to line up a long-term replacement for Costa.

The cracks have been papered over for now. But how long will it be until two fiery characters collide once again?

Lionel Messi discusses his Barcelona future

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the Copa del Rey round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at Camp Nou on January 11, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has addressed speculation linking him with a move away from the only club he has ever known.

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Messi, 29, has been at Barcelona since the age of 13 and the Argentine superstar has won every possible trophy with the Catalan giants, plus has been crowned the World Player of the Year on five occasions.

Time for a new challenge?

Reports had suggested that Barcelona have wanted to start talks over a new contract with Messi for quite some time but with just 18 months left on his current deal, Messi and his representatives are yet to hold talks.

“I have always said that Barcelona has given me everything and I am here for as long as they want me to be,” Messi said in Coach magazine.

Hmm.

Messi also spoke about his former manager and mentor, Pep Guardiola, and his challenging start to life in the Premier League as manager of Manchester City.

“It is a very competitive league, last season showed that, so it makes it very difficult to predict,” Messi added. “Of course Pep is a very successful coach, he will be adjusting to the league, but I am sure that he will be successful.”

Will Messi be part of Pep’s success at City?

It is obvious Barca will want him to stay but if a huge offer comes in for Messi from Man City this summer, or others in the Premier League, then surely he will think twice about it.

If Pep can coax Messi to join him at City, who can clearly afford him, then it would be another glittering star in their attacking line. That said, if Guardiola is going to be successful then he’ll have to add plenty more quality in defense as City currently sit 10 points off leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go in the PL season.

Loss to Sevilla quickly puts Real Madrid’s Zidane on the defensive

SEVILLE, SPAIN - JANUARY 15:  Head Coach of Real Madrid CF Zinedine Zidane looks on prior to  the match against Real Madrid CF during the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on January 15, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid’s first loss after a 40-game unbeaten streak was enough to put coach Zinedine Zidane on the defensive.

Two days after Madrid’s unbeaten record was halted by a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in the Spanish league, Zidane was forced to defend some of his players against criticism from fans and local media.

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Most comments were aimed at goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who failed to stop Sevilla’s injury-time winner on Sunday. Navas got to Stevan Jovetic‘s long-range shot but was unable to keep the ball from going in.

“He’s having a really good season,” Zidane said on Tuesday. “You can always ask for more, but if up until now we had gone 40 games without losing, it’s for a reason, and he has been there all the way.”

There have been calls for Zidane to give reserve goalkeeper Kiko Casilla a chance, but the coach said there was “no need to go over this again.”

Zidane also dismissed talk about signing a new goalkeeper.

“These are rumors,” he said. “We are focused on what we are doing this year. Whatever happens next I’m not interested and it’s not the time to talk about it. The three goalkeepers we have are important, they’re doing well and I’m very happy with them. I don’t want to change anything we’re doing.”

[ MORE: How Sevilla hope to break up the Madrid-Barca duopoly ]

Zidane defended forward Karim Benzema, who lost possession near midfield in a mistake that led to host Sevilla’s winner on Sunday.

“Everyone can say and write what they want,” Zidane said. “On a field, playing 90 minutes, you can’t do everything right. There is talk of lack of concentration, but we only had five bad minutes and that happens in football.”

Benzema also missed a chance to score from close range in the game, but a few days earlier it was the French striker who netted in stoppage time in a Copa del Rey match against Sevilla to help Madrid set the Spanish unbeaten record.

Zidane downplayed the end of Madrid’s unbeaten streak. The club hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat at Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

“These things happen,” he said. “Nothing is going to change in what I’m going to do. Those who are not Real Madrid fans will want us to lose, but we must be ready and think that what we’re doing is fine. We lost a game, something that happens, and now we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Madrid hosts Celta Vigo on Wednesday in a first-leg match in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

Celta has won all four matches this year.

“I am not surprised by Celta’s record because they’re a very good team, they fight and play very good football,” Zidane said. “It’ll be another complicated match for us.”

FA fines Man City’s Sagna over “10 against 12” Instagram message

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Scott Arfield of Burnley (L) tackles Bacary Sagna of Manchester City (R) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley at Etihad Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) The English Football Association has fined Manchester City defender Bacary Sagna 40,000 pounds (around $50,000) for an Instagram post about a referee.

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Sagna posted a photo with the caption “10 against 12.. but still fighting and winning as a team” on the social network site following City’s 2-1 win against Burnley on Jan. 2.

Sagna later amended the post to read “still fighting and winning as a team” after a match that saw referee Lee Mason send off midfielder Fernandinho.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

The FA also warned Sagna about his future conduct.