Messi, Falcao score as Barcelona beats Atlético

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Three early chances asked you to believe this game could be different. An early header that found woodwork. A narrow miss wide after blowing past Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol. Then the goal, a turnover by Lionel Messi leading to Radamel Falcao’s opener. If the world’s best No. 9 was going to get chances every 10 minutes, Barcelona would surely fall at Camp Nou.

That didn’t happen. Finally putting his side ahead in the 31st minute, Falcao’s 17th goal of the season served as a wakeup call. Five minutes later, a golazo from Adriano pulled the league leaders even. Sergio Busquets gave them the lead before half, a position Barcelona never relinquished. The Catalans went on to a 4-1 victory, completing their best 16-game start to a Primera Division season (46 points).

In many ways, it was typical Barcelona. From the opening kickoff they dominated possession, with their high defensive line tempting (and eventually, conceding) a goal. For one of the few times this season, Tito Vilanova had a full complement of defenders at his disposal (Jordi Alba starting with Pique, Puyol, and Adriano). Going forward it took them time to break down a well-organized Atlético defense, though once they did, their dominance of possession helped see out the match.

The one thing that wasn’t typical was Messi. At least, for 45 minutes, the world’s best player wasn’t his normal sel. Stripped of the ball by Diego Costa just inside Atlético’s half ahead of the first goal, Messi was arguably a weakness over the first half. Without his mistake, Victor Valdes might have carried a clean sheet into intermission.

Messi got some redemption early in the second half. In the 57th minute, a ball played to him just outside the Atlético area allowed him to dribble onto his left and beat Thibault Courtois from 19 yards out. Falcao may have taken the first 45 minutes, but Messi wasn’t going to allow their duel to reach full time without being heard. In the 88th minute, when Messi stripped Diego Godin before chipping Courtois, the world’s best player had the final word.

But despite running his league goal total to 25 on the season, this wasn’t vintage Messi. Controlling a 4-on-3 counter in the second half, Messi uncharacteristically overhit a ball for Alexei Sanchez coming in from the left, Courtois about to diffuse the opportunity with an easy scoop of the errant pass. On a typical day, Messi generates a chance on that break, be it for himself or others.

In that sense, Sunday’s result was as informative for what it wasn’t as what it was. Though a extremely entertaining first half faded into Barcelona’s typical siege, Spain’s leaders weren’t at their best. Yet against the second-best team in their league — a team whose form would have them competing for any other title in the world — Barça cruised. At the final whistle, they had a nine-point league lead on Atlético. The gap between them and Real Madrid’s 13.

Perhaps it’s right the match was overshadowed by the Messi-Falcao matchup. Though it featured the two best teams in Spain, the gap between the sides is too great to consider them peers. Messi, for so long considered the best player in the world, is much closer to Falcao in quality than Barcelona is to Atlético Madrid, a fact that speaks to the qualities of both Falcao and the team that beat him.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday