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.

Report: Whitecaps teen sensation Davies could have Man United trial

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP
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The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup saw a lot of young faces in competition, and one name that really seemed to stick came from Canada’s national team.

[ MORE: Five players LA FC should consider selecting in MLS Expansion Draft ]

Vancouver Whitecaps attacker Alphonso Davies has been doing it for both club and country since making his Major League Soccer debut in 2016, and now the young Canada international could be making a massive leap.

According to CTV Edmonton, the 17-year-old has been contacted by Premier League side Manchester United for a trial in January.

Davies would need clearance from the Whitecaps to join the Red Devils to train, however, with it being MLS’ offseason it’s hard to imagine the Cascadia club not allowing the former Edmonton Strikers player to seize the opportunity.

In 2017, Davies appeared in 26 matches for the Whitecaps and registered one assist for Carl Robinson’s side.

Davies has already become a regular with the Canada national team, after previously receiving call ups from the Under-15, U-18 and U-20 teams.

Five players LA FC should consider selecting in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC will take another big step towards its entry into Major League Soccer next season on Tuesday when the 2017 MLS Expansion Draft commences.

Bob Bradley and his side will have the opportunity to select up to five players during the Expansion Draft, however, the team can only choose one player per club.

[ MORE: Rimando, Pontius among MLS free agents ]

MLS sides had to select their list of 11 protected players by Sunday evening in order to put them off limits from LA FC. Any player not protected by their club is available for selection.

After exploring some of the names of those left unprotected, PST takes a look at five players LA FC should select in Tuesday’s Expansion Draft.

Maxime Chanot — (CB from New York City FC)

He’s 28 years old, and helped build one of the better central defensive partnerships in MLS last season with Alex Callens, prior to his injury. NYCFC could be banking on the fact that his injury will prevent him from getting back to his previous level, but there’s no question Chanot is the sort of player that could anchor the LA FC back line for five-plus seasons.

David Ousted — (GK from Vancouver Whitecaps)

Made 90-plus saves in four of his five seasons with the Whitecaps, and overall one of the top goalkeepers in MLS. The Denmark native has recorded 36 shutouts in his time with the Cascadia side, and helped guide the Whitecaps to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference in 2017. With Real Salt Lake not picking up Nick Rimando’s contract, the veteran USMNT shot-stopper could also be an option for LA FC, however, Ousted is younger and arguably better at this stage of his career.

Marco Urena — (FWD from San Jose Earthquakes)

The 27-year-old may not be on many people’s radars, but the Costa Rican had five goals and three assists last season for the Quakes. Urena was tied for second on the team in goals, and provides a solid veteran player on a new LA FC side. While Carlos Vela will be the focal point up front for the newcomers, Urena is the sort of player that could player a very important supporting role.

Osvaldo Alonso — (MID from Seattle Sounders)

The Designated Player contract could scare LA FC away because Alonso is 32 years old, but this is the type of guy you want in the center of the park. For nine seasons, Alonso has anchored the Sounders midfield, and he does all the dirty work that could very well help the transition of the expansion side’s back line in 2018.

Chris Tierney — (DEF from New England Revolution

Similar to Alonso, Tierney isn’t going to be the sexiest pick, but he’s had the MLS experience, and he’s likely a player that could move on from a team where he’s spent his entire career. His versatility in the midfield and defensively allows Tierney to be a highly-coveted asset, especially as a player that is capable of delivering a quality cross from down the left flank.

Rimando, Pontius among 40 MLS players eligible for free agency

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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Ahead of Tuesday’s Free Agency period, Major League Soccer released a list of 40 eligible players on Sunday.

Veterans over the age of 28 and who have played at least eight seasons in MLS qualified for the list, as well as players out-of-contract and those who didn’t have their options picked up.

[ MORE: Stanford knocks off Indiana in extra time to win third straight College Cup ]

MLS was busy earlier in the day on Sunday when several clubs announced blockbuster trades, including Kei Kamara’s move to Vancouver and expansion side Los Angeles FC’s addition of Walker Zimmerman.

A number of notable MLS veterans are included on the following list, such as Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, Chris Pontius of the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls defender Sal Zizzo.

NOTE: The MLS Expansion Draft will also take place on Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET as LA FC has the opportunity to select up to five players ahead of its inaugural MLS season in 2018.

Below is the full list of candidates for this offseason’s free agents.

Player Previous
Club
Status
Alexander, Eric HOU Out of Contract
Alston, Kevin ORL Out of Contract
Barrett, Chad RSL Option Decline
Beasley, DaMarcus HOU Out of Contract
Beitashour, Steven TOR Out of Contract
Boswell, Bobby ATL Out of Contract
Burling, Robert COL Out of Contract
Carroll, Brian PHI Retired
Clark, Ricardo HOU Option Decline
DeLaGarza, AJ HOU Option Decline
Deric, Tyler HOU Option Decline
Duka, Dilly NY Option Decline
Evans, Brad SEA Out of Contract
Francis, Shaun MTL Option Decline
Franklin, Sean DC Option Decline
Gordon, Alan COL Option Decline
Harrington, Michael CHI Option Decline
Harris, Atiba DAL Option Decline
Harvey, Jordan VAN Out of Contract
Hernandez, Jason TOR Out of Contract
Jacobson, Andrew VAN Out of Contract
Knighton, Brad NE Out of Contract
Kronberg, Eric MTL Out of Contract
Larentowicz, Jeffrey ATL Option Decline
Loyd, Zachary ATL Option Decline
Moor, Andrew TOR Out of Contract
Morales, Javier DAL Out of Contract
Neagle, Lamar SEA Out of Contract
Nyarko, Patrick DC Out of Contract
Pontius, Chris PHI Out of Contract
Reynish, Kyle ATL Out of Contract
Rimando, Nick RSL Out of Contract
Rogers, Robbie LA Retired
Rolfe, Chris DC Retired
Saunders, Joshua ORL Option Decline
Schuler, Chris RSL Option Decline
Seitz, Christopher DAL Out of Contract
Wingert, Chris RSL Out of Contract
Zemanski, Ben POR Out of Contract
Zizzo, Sal NY Option Decline

The 2 Robbies podcast: Man City steps towards the title, Merseyside recap

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle dissect Derby Day, where Man City set the Premier League single season all time consecutive winning streak against rivals Man United, Jurgen Klopp had a bad day at the office against the blue half of Merseyside and Arsenal stutter again away from home.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

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