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.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.