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.

Premier League Player Power Rankings – Week 14

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Here are the latest batch of Premier League Player Power Rankings, with Chelsea and Arsenal leading the way.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Antonio Conte‘s Blues have won eight on the spin and there’s no surprise that seven of their players feature in our top 20. There are also three players from Arsenal as the Gunners have now gone 13 games without a defeat in the PL.

Middlesbrough and Sunderland both have multiple players included which goes hand-in-hand with their recent good form, while Liverpool, West Brom, Bournemouth and Crystal Palace are also represented.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players over the past seven days in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the Premier League right now.


  1. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Up 1
  2. Diego Costa (Chelsea) – Down 1
  3. Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) – Up 16
  4. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – New entry
  5. Eden Hazard (Chelsea) — Up 6
  6. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) – Up 1
  7. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – New entry
  8. Gaston Ramirez (Middlesbrough) – Up 5
  9. Victor Moses (Chelsea) – New entry
  10.  Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – New entry
  11. Jordan Pickford (Sunderland) – New entry
  12. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – Down 2
  13. Matt Phillips (West Brom) – New entry
  14. Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – New entry
  15.  Jermain Defoe (Sunderland) – New entry
  16. Alvaro Negredo (Middlesbrough) – Down 7
  17. Divock Origi (Liverpool) – Even
  18. Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace) – New entry
  19. Gary Cahill (Chelsea) — Down 5
  20. Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth) – New entry

VIDEO: Leicester academy product scores stunner from halfway line

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 08:  Layton Ndukwu of Leicester City crosses the ball during the FA Youth Cup semi final, second leg match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on April 8, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
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Take a bow, Layton Ndukwu.

Leicester City’s U23 side played Liverpool over the past weekend and video has emerged showing the English teenager scoring a sensational goal.

[ MORE: Klopp takes Liverpool on vacay ]

Ndukwu, 18, picked the ball up in his own half after latching onto a loose ball, took one touch and then sent a shot from well over half-field which caught the Liverpool goalkeeper out and went into the net.

Since David Beckham’s halfway line special back in the day, there is nothing quite like seeing a goal from that far out.

Drink it in below, while remember the name: Layton Ndukwu

David Villa wins 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP honors

CARSON, CA - AUGUST 23:  David Villa #7 of New York City FC scores on a penalty kick against Los Angeles Galaxy during the second half at StubHub Center August 23, 2015, in Carson, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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The league has spoken…

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After a second consecutive season of brilliance in the Big Apple, New York City FC striker David Villa has been named the 2016 Landon Donovan MLS MVP.

This season, Villa notched an impressive 23 goals and four assists for NYCFC and helped the club advance to the postseason for the first time in the team’s brief history.

Since joining MLS ahead of NYCFC’s inaugural season in 2015, the Spaniard has notched 41 goals in 65 matches, including the playoffs.

Villa beat out New York Red Bulls duo Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan for this season’s honors.

Paul Pogba urged to cut out the showboating at Man United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United shows his appreciation for the fans after the final whistleduring the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Paul Pogba‘s opening few months at Manchester United have not gone as expected.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

Pogba, 23, became the most expensive player in history when he joined the Red Devils from Juventus for $113 million this summer but so far he has failed to show his best for and his United side is languishing 13 points off Premier League leaders Chelsea.

That has led to the manager of the French national team, Didier Deschamps, to offer Pogba a very public piece of advice. In a nutshell: stop showing off.

Speaking to French station RMC, Deschamps urged his midfielder for France to forget about trying to impress on a personal note and simply put the team first.

“Even when he does things well it’s not good enough,” Deschamps said. “So we can understand that it may encourage him to do things that are out of the ordinary but not necessarily helpful. He can do things that others do not, but it must also be the reality of what is good for the team. We’re talking about a young player. He is at a club where he is also used in different positions.”

Talking about different positions, Deschamps used Pogba in a much deeper role during France’s run to the EURO 2016 final in the summer and many believe his influence on games was impacted. Nevertheless, Pogba stuck to his task and dug in for France.

With United struggling and pressure already starting to pile not only on his shoulders but those of his fellow star players and manager Jose Mourinho, Pogba must sacrifice his individual flair for the team. Simply put, he must do whatever is needed to get the Red Devils back to grinding wins and challenging for a top four finish.

That all starts this Sunday as they host Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) looking to close the gap on another top four rival.

Pogba has been used in a central attacking midfield role in recent weeks and has looked a lot better than when he played in a deeper role. However, the balance between himself and other midfielders at United just isn’t quite right and that needs to change if Mourinho’s side will be successful this season. He has looked most comfortable with Ander Herrera alongside him in midfield and his link up play with Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been a rare bright spot in yet another poor season, so far, for United.

He’s not the type of player who will scored 15-20 goals from midfield (he only has two thus far in the 2016-17 PL campaign) but he can be so instrumental in dictating the tempo of the game. That’s what United need him to do. Right now.