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.

MLS at Week 17: New York Derby headlines host of intriguing fixtures

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It’s hard to believe the MLS regular season is already halfway done, but that’s the truth.

Two Eastern Conference sides continue to dazzle in the Supporters’ Shield race, and while one of them was expected to have success in 2017 the other is putting on a surprise performance for the ages.

The Texas Derby will kick off one of several rivalry matches this weekend, while will be headlined by Saturday afternoon’s clash at Red Bull Arena between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC.

The weekend will come to a close late on Sunday night when a Cascadia rivalry is renewed as the Portland Timbers host the Seattle Sounders in a critical Western Conference bout.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Here’s a full look at the MLS docket ahead of a busy weekend.

Toronto FC vs. New England Revolution — 8 p.m. ET Friday

The Revs spoiled TFC’s impressive unbeaten run just two weeks back but Toronto is back on track and once again looks like the best side in MLS. Jay Heaps and Co. will likely have a difficult time north of the border when these sides meet at BMO Field.

Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas — 9 p.m. ET Friday

The first rivalry matchup takes place down in Texas this weekend and few would’ve thought that Houston would be sitting above Dallas in the Western Conference standings to this point. Led by goalscorer Erick “Cubo” Torres and his 10 finishes this season, the Dynamo have been one of the most potent attacks in MLS in 2017. Dallas’ backline has been a stalwart though through 15 matches, with the club only allowing 14 goals (second-fewest in MLS).

New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC — 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday

NYCFC has undoubtedly been the better of the two sides as the MLS season nears the halfway point, but to say this rivalry has been one sided in its now third year is an understatement. The Red Bulls have won seven of their eight matchups against their Bronx foes across all competitions, including last week’s U.S. Open Cup win at Red Bull Arena. Patrick Vieira and Co. will be seeking their first win at RBA on Saturday, while also attempting to create some separation from the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference table.

Atlanta United vs. Colorado Rapids — 7 p.m. ET Saturday

This matchup is a tale of two very different teams. Atlanta continues to bounce up and down in its debut season, although largely impressing in the attacking third in many of its matches. Meanwhile, the Rapids are struck at the bottom of MLS on 16 points, and there’s little sign of improvement from Pablo Mastroeni’s group.

Philadelphia Union vs. D.C. United — 7 p.m. ET Saturday

Something has to give when these two clubs meet. D.C. is coming off of a nice home win against Atlanta, so advantage to Ben Olson’s group despite the club’s poor goalscoring form. The ninth-place side has just 12 goals this season, which is three less than the next worst team in MLS.

Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

The Crew have reverted to their defensive tendencies from a season ago, allowing the most goals in the Eastern Conference so far (29). The Impact, however, are finally finding their groove after going unbeaten in their last four.

Minnesota United vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 8 p.m. ET Saturday

The Loons have had a rough go of it so far in MLS, but the good news is the club is certainly improving. Wednesday’s performance against the Timbers was a real bright spot in the team’s inaugural season, and now they can look to follow up that effort with their second consecutive win, which Minnesota hasn’t done in 2017. Vancouver has shown its own improvements recently, going unbeaten in five of its last seven matches.

Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

When these two sides met a few weeks ago, all we had was an uneventful 0-0 draw. Expect something much different this time around, particularly from the Fire, who have built up a full head of steam as they enter Saturday’s contest unbeaten in their last eight matches.

LA Galaxy vs. Sporting KC — 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

This has the makings of a quality playoff matchup down the road, especially given the Galaxy’s resurgence as of late. Like the Fire, the Galaxy have their own eight-match unbeaten run to boast and it has propelled them up to fifth place in the West. Sporting KC continues to run the Western Conference with 27 points and a stingy backline that has only conceded 11 goals in 17 matches. That’s pretty unheard of stuff.

San Jose Earthquakes vs. Real Salt Lake — 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Neither side has managed to find a rhythm this season, but with seven teams separated by six points in the Western Conference playoff race it’s a match like this that holds extra weight.

Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders — 10 p.m. ET Sunday

The Cascadia battles have become some of the best in MLS, and while the Sounders are still struggling to find their form from a season ago this one has all the makings of another massive clash. Neither side enters Sunday’s matchup in the finest form, but there’s nothing that could be more beneficial for either club than a rivalry victory.

Portugal considers resting Ronaldo ahead of group stage finale

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Portugal is on the verge of reaching the semifinals at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup, and the reigning European champions could be set to rest their biggest star ahead of their group stage finale on Saturday.

[ MORE: Confed Cup scenarios before final group stage matches ]

The team currently sits tied on four points with Group A leaders Mexico through two matches, and with New Zealand — who is already eliminated from advancing — left on the docket for Portugal, manager Fernando Santos is prepared to rest Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Everybody wants to watch Cristiano Ronaldo, even I want to watch Cristiano Ronaldo,” Santos said on Friday.

“I don’t know if I’m going to play with Cristiano or without Cristiano. Obviously, rotation will take place, that I can tell you.”

Portugal will be playing its third match in a seven-day span on Saturday, which certainly warrants a rest for Ronaldo and possibly some others for Santos’ side.

Hosts Russia sit one point behind Mexico and Portugal though, so it would be a bit of a gamble for Ronaldo to miss the New Zealand match, which will be played at Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg.

Reports: Arsenal nearing deal for Lyon striker Lacazette

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Arsenal appears to be on the verge of adding another French international striker, but the Gunners will have to pay up in order to secure the goalscoring specialist.

Various reports have linked the Premier League side with Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette since last summer, but now, Arsenal is nearing a deal for the 26-year-old.

L’Equipe is reporting that Arsene Wenger‘s team is willing to pay over $67 million for Lacazette, who is coming off of a 28-goal season for Lyon in Ligue 1.

Meanwhile, Sky Sports confirmed the report, stating that the Gunners are in open talks with Lyon as the London side attempts to acquire the highly-touted forward.

Over the last four seasons, Lacazette has tallied over 20 goals in all competitions for the French club. The Lyon native had a career year in 2016/17, tallying 37 goals in all comps.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 17: East leads the way at the top

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The Western Conference has dominated MLS Cup for the better part of a decade, but it’s the East that continues to shine bright as this MLS season hits the midway point.

Here are PST’s latest MLS Power Rankings as we head into another busy weekend:

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TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)
 

22 (21)

21 (22)

 

20 (20)

Real Salt Lake: A win over Minnesota in their last outing was solid but the Claret and Cobalt still remain just one point above bottom out West.

D.C. United: A nice comeback win over Atlanta helped D.C.’s stock slightly, and apparently they’re one of the few clubs that has figured out how to have success against Tata Martino’s group.

Colorado Rapids: The Rapids were brought back down to earth after their three-match win streak. Despite that run, Pablo Mastroeni and Co. remain last in all of MLS.

19 (16) New England Revolution: Jay Heap’s group were flying high after a big win against Toronto, but another strong Eastern Conference side (the Chicago Fire) reminded the Revs how talented the East is.
18 (15) Philadelphia Union: Three straight losses have the Union back to where they were early in the season… at the bottom of the East.
17 (18) Minnesota United: There’s no doubt the Loons picked up their most exciting win thus far on Wednesday night against Portland. Adrian Heath and Co. will attempt to do something they haven’t accomplished yet in MLS; win back-to-back games.
16 (16) Montreal Impact: The Impact are unbeaten in four, but the Canadian side still has the fewest wins in MLS (4) through 14 matches played.
15 (19) Seattle Sounders: Rough conditions at Yankee Stadium shouldn’t have been anything the Sounders weren’t used to but the reigning champions couldn’t get it done against NYCFC before following it up with a solid draw against Orlando.

 

14 (14) Vancouver Whitecaps: A solid result against FC Dallas has the Whitecaps sitting in the final playoff spot out west.
 

13 (11) San Jose Earthquakes: The Quakes are winless in three and have scored just twice in the process. The club is hoping new signing “Vako” will be the DP spark the team needs.
12 (8) Columbus Crew: Greg Berhalter’s men have proven to be one of the better home sides in MLS. They’ll welcome a hungry Impact side on Saturday.

 

11 (13) Atlanta United: D.C. appears to be this club’s kryptonite. Atlanta will host last-place Colorado this weekend.
10 (10) Portland Timbers: It was an ugly match against Minnesota, but despite back-to-back losses the Timbers still sit third in the West.
 

9 (12) Orlando City: The Lions continue to show signs of improvement from their first two seasons in MLS. They’re late equalizer against the Sounders was the latest showing.
8 (9)  New York Red Bulls: 6-1 is the Red Bulls record against NYCFC. Even better for the Harrison side is that they haven’t lost at home to their New York rivals.
7 (7) LA Galaxy: Props to the Galaxy for their turnaround, but Curt Onalfo’s men need to clean things up at home. The Galaxy currently boast the worst home record in all of MLS at 1-3-3.
6 (5) FC Dallas: The defending Supporters’ Shield holders have a brutal schedule upcoming, which begins with another Texas Derby on Saturday.

 

 

5 (3) Houston Dynamo: This team keeps quietly going about its business, and despite it’s poor road record (0-6-2) the Dynamo sit second out West.
4 (6)  New York City FC: A big win over the Sounders should have Patrick Vieira’s men buzzing heading into their second Hudson River Derby in a span of 10 days.
3 (5) Sporting KC: Peter Vermes and Co. will face one of their biggest challenges to date when they head west to take on the surging Galaxy.
2 (2) Chicago Fire: The Fire are now unbeaten in eight, and it’s very fair to say that this club is pushing hard for the top spot in the East and the Supporters’ Shield.
1 (1) Toronto FC: Unbeaten in nine of their last 10, Toronto is still the odds-on favorite to win MLS Cup this season.