Malaga CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga

Offshore drilling, Spain: Barcelona 3, at Málaga 1

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The typical formula for combating Barcelona is absorb their attack, stay very deep and compact, and on rely on counters. While the approach rarely leads to results, teams like Celtic, Chelsea, and Rubin Kazan have had success. Only José Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been able to go blow-for-blow with their rivals (and during the Special One’s first year in Madrid, it was too close to literal blows).

That’s why it’s surprising when a team like Málaga not only plays Barcelona straight up but is able to compete with Spain’s runaway leaders. For over a half on Sunday, only an aberrational first half mistake separated the two sides.

In the second, however, a Cesc Fabregas goal doubled Barcelona’s lead, and although Málaga again dialed up the intensity after a brief period of shock, Barcelona a superficially comfortable 3-1 victory.

It’s not exaggeration to say this game could have gone either way. Ignacio Camacho’s ill-advised first half back pass (after a collision between Málaga teammates on a Willy Caballero goal kick) gifted Lionel Messi the half’s only goal. Before that, Málaga was almost as dangerous as Barcelona, frequently able to get at their opponent down Barça’s right flank.

Given the tenacity with which Málaga was playing, the game may have broke differently were it not for one unfortunate, atypical mistake.

Man of the Match: Barcelona was playing, right? OK, then: Lionel Messi was Man of the Match.

The choice is both the default and justified. While the opening goal was gifted — Camacho’s backpass easily intercepted before Messi rounded Caballero at the edge of the area to finish into an open net — Messi assisted on each of Barça’s other goals. In the second half, a nice 20-yard diagonal allowed Fábregas to race past Sergio Sánchez and finish against Caballero’s left post. On Thiago Alcantera’s 82nd minute goal, Messi laid off a pass to the substitute midfielder ahead of his 19-yard blast.

(MORE: Video of Messi’s goal Sunday)

By Messi’s standards, it was an average day. He less dominant than opportunistic, but in match where Málaga’s tenaciousness held most of his teammates in check, the Ballon d’ Or winner was still the game’s best player.

Threesome of knowledge

1. Beware Málaga in Champions League – Spain-based Guardian and Sports Illustrated correspondent Sid Lowe was high on Málaga’s chances to go far in Champions League when December’s knockout round draw was made. Manuel Pellegrini’s team had cruised through their group, but against a floundering Milan, a Zenit squad in turmoil, and an outgunned Anderlecht, it was difficult to gauge how ready Málaga was for the next phase.

If Málaga plays like they did today, they’ll be a major threat in the knockout round. Few teams have players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in midfield. The elite talents of that trio were the only thing that kept Barcelona in control at the Rosaleda. Were it not for the midfielder-esque skills of central defenders Gerard Pique and (to a lesser extent) Javier Mascherano, Barça would have been thrown off by high pressure from Roque Santa Cruz and  (and Jeremy Toulalan and Camacho in behind them). Less talented teams would have crumbled.

Even Real Madrid at their best — as talented but slower than Barcelona — would have had trouble. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are capable of dealing with Málaga, but teams like Manchester United, Juventus, and Paris Saint Germain? They’d struggle.

Porto – Málaga’s Round of 16 opponent? They’re in trouble.

2. That extra dimension of Andrés Iniesta – Were it not for Andrés Iniesta’s ability to turn upfield and move the ball vertically, Barcelona may have been relegated to knocking the ball sideways to try and get around Toulalan and Camacho. But at various moments in the match (most importantly, during Málaga’s last surge in the middle of the second half), Iniesta’s ability to dribble through Málaga’s initial pressure was the only thing that allowed Barcelona to keep the ball.

It was an example of the exquisite balance in Barcelona’s midfield. Neither Xavi nor Busquets are capable of carrying the ball like Iniesta, yet Iniesta can’t run a game like Xavi. And neither man’s capable of providing Busquets’ support.

Today, Barcelona needed Iniesta to shine. When teams pack it in, they’ll need Xavi to unlock them. And against teams that can win the ball and counter through the middle, Busquets will need to step up.

3. Barcelona’s defense coming around – Early this season, Barcelona’s defense looked suspect, but because their opponents rarely had the ball, the goals allowed numbers stayed low. Yet when you watched Tito Vilanova’s team you couldn’t help but wonder what teams like Bayern Munich would do to them in Champions League.

Now the defense is coming around. During Málaga’s first half advances, the back stayed organized as attacks into the space behind Daniel Alves forced the defense to reorganize. Gerard Pique (playing right-center half) calmly forced the play away from goal, where Sergio Busquets dropping into the back left the team prepared to deal with Málaga’s followup.

Instead of seeing their defenders isolated and desperate, Barcelona fans saw their team coolly deal with the type of attacks they’ll see against the world’s better teams. And with their defense playing better, those fans have reason to expect their guys will hold up.

Packaged for takeaway

  • By the end of the game, Barcelona’s possession number was at a typical 64 percent, though the shots on goal only favored them 4-2. Most of possession came in the second half after Fábregas’s goal temporarily disillusioned Málaga.
  • At times, there seems to be little difference between the team’s two right backs: Spanish internationals Jordi Alba (Barcelona) and Nacho Monreal (Malaga). But in the second half, Alba flashed the quality that sets him apart, coming from nowhere to overlap Iniesta in the box during one mid-half movement. Nothing came of it, but the speed with which Alba joined the attack created a “yeah, that’s what makes him different” moment.
  • Were it not for some strong reads early from Caballero, Barcelona may have rolled out to a typically easy victory. Three times in the first half hour Caballero charged off his line to deal with attacks. Still, it was an early stop on Lionel Messi that really deserves some attention. It wasn’t a leaping save, so you won’t see it in a highlight, but in going to ground on his right arm before reaching across his body to stop the ball with his left, Caballero showed the type of athleticism that’s often overlooked. A lot of goalkeepers can make the leaping stop, but to be able to both divert an attacker and recover to block his followup is something that would ask too much of a lot of pure shot-stoppers.

Why Antoine Griezmann is exactly what Man United need

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JULY 07:  Antoine Griezmann of France celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA EURO semi final match between Germany and France at Stade Velodrome on July 7, 2016 in Marseille, France.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Multiple reports are linking Manchester United with a summer move for Antoine Griezmann.

Do they need him? Yes. Yes they do.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

An incredible stat emerged at the weekend which stated that United has the worst “big chance” conversion rate in the whole of the Premier League. Stats company Opta state that United have had 37 big chances (this stat is described as “a situation where a player should be reasonably expected to score”) this season, converting just 12 of them at a ratio of 32.43 percent.

The Independent claims that United are willing to pay Griezmann’s release clause of $106 million to sign him from Atletico Madrid and the French international said back in November that he would like to link up with his international teammate Paul Pogba.

Seems straightforward enough…

There is, however, a complication surrounding any deal as Atletico currently have a transfer ban and if their appeal falls through then the Spanish club won’t be able to buy or sell any players in the summer.

For United, 25-year-old Griezmann would be the major arrival at Old Trafford this summer and the report also suggests that Mourinho is eager to offload Luke Shaw this offseason, plus Memphis Depay will leave in January as Lyon’s pursuit continues.

Back to Griezmann though, and it is reported that United have been pursuing the diminutive striker since the summer when he stole the show at EURO 2016 as the top goalscorer in the tournament which saw the host nation France lose in the final to Portugal.

On paper, Griezmann would be a phenomenal buy for United. He is exactly what they’ve been missing this season.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Antoine Griezmann (L) and Paul Pogba (R) of France shows their dejection after their team's 0-1 defeat in the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Yes, Zlatan has been ruthless in recent weeks — 11 goals in his last 11 games in all competitions says as much — but he is 35 years old and can’t be expected to go on forever. He has also had bad moments in front of goal this season and when you look around United’s squad they have raw young talents in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford but not much else, and certainly no clinical strikers like Griezmann.

When I think of United, I think of a team creating copious amounts of chances and with their direct play under Mourinho they have certainly missed plenty of “big chances” this season, dropping points after failing to finish teams off and drawing many games they should have won.

If Griezmann was at United this season he’d probably be leading the PL in goals scored. I’m sure of it. He is of the same ilk as a Javier Hernandez or Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, a lightning quick poacher who is cool in the box. Yet, Griezmann also offers more with his pace and creativity and that’s why United should break the bank to sign him this summer.

This season Griezmann has scored 12 goals in 25 appearance for an Atletico side battling back from adversity to position themselves in the La Liga title race once again. Over the course of his two-and-a-half seasons at the Vicente Calderon he has now scored 69 goals in 132 games in all competitions. Every step up he has made the striker has done it with ease.

For United to become title contenders and get back to the upper echeleons of Europe, Mourinho needs a predator in the box. Zlatan and Wayne Rooney are getting on and youngsters Martial and Rashford will take time to develop. With the likes of Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan putting chances on a plate for those in front of them, United’s fans must be salivating at the thought of seeing Griezmann in a red shirt.

If United go out and buy Griezmann this summer it will be yet another huge statement in their intent to be back among the elite.

USWNT star O’Reilly signs for Arsenal

BIRMINGHAM, AL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Heather O'Reilly #9 of the United States of America reacts after scoring a goal against Haiti during the US Women's 2015 World Cup victory tour match at Legion Field on September 20, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Former U.S. women’s national team star Heather O’Reilly has completed her move to Arsenal Ladies.

[ MORE: Messi talks about future ]

O’Reilly, 32, is the eighth-highest capped player in USWNT history and retired from the national team in September 2016. She was an integral part of the team which won the 2015 World Cup in Canada, plus she has three Olympic gold medals from the 2004 games in Athens, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.

The midfielder scored 47 goals in 231 appearances for the USWNT, while she has also played for the Boston Breakers and most recently the Kansas City Stars in the NWSL.

Speaking about signing for the FA Women’s Super League powerhouse, O’Reilly was delighted to be moving to London.

“Having come over to Arsenal last year to train, I was very impressed with the club,” O’Reilly said. “The facilities are world class and they have a tradition of excellence at the club that I wanted to be a part of, I’m very happy to be here.”

The schedules for the 2017-18 season in both the WSL 1 and 2 were released last week and the opening weekend of the season is on Apr. 22 when O’Reilly’s Arsenal play Notts County.

O’Reilly joins USWNT winger Crystal Dunn in the WSL 1, as she plays for Arsenal’s London rivals Chelsea.

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.

[ MORE: Who are title favorites? ]

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.