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 Snapshot: Chicago Fire 1-3 Toronto FC (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): Greg Vanney and Toronto keep on doing their thing, and the Canadian side is yet another step closer to achieving MLS glory. TFC picked up its 50th point of the season on Saturday night after comfortably handling the Chicago Fire, who have cooled off significantly as of late in the Eastern Conference. The Fire are now nine points behind the East leaders and are losers of four of their last five matches.

Three moments that mattered

54′ — Accam, Fire level it up — Toronto really does manage to get contributions from everybody…

64′ — Hasler nets first MLS goal — Toronto really does manage to get contributions from all of their players…

90′ — Giovinco says goodnight to Chicago — That’s 12 goals on the season for Sebastian Giovinco and the TFC striker continues to help his side push towards the top seed in the East and MLS.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Marco Delgado (14′), David Accam (54′), Nick Hasler (63′), Sebastian Giovinco (90′)

Video: Watts gifts D.C. United own goal for the ages

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Not many things have gone right for either side involved in 2017, but D.C. United was the recipient of a gift early on against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday night.

[ MORE: Piatti brace lifts Impact to fourth win in a row; Orlando, Crew draw ]

In the 27th minute, Rapids center back Jared Watts received the ball at the back, before making a routine back pass to USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard

Or at least, it should have been a routine back pass.

Instead, Watts’ pass was well off target and too strong for Howard to reach and landed in the back of the Rapids goal. 1-0 in favor of D.C.

Reminder: Both these teams sit at the bottom of their respective conferences on points.

MLS Snapshot: Piatti brace lifts Impact | Crew, Orlando City draw

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): The Montreal Impact have proven to be a second-half of the season team the last several years, and that form appears to be holding true once more. Mauro Biello’s side won its fourth straight match on Saturday, while Ignacio Piatti continues to show he’s one of the most deadly scorers in the league. Meanwhile, RSL’s six-match unbeaten run is snapped north of the border, leaving the Western Conference side three points out of sixth place.

Three four moments that mattered

11′ — Piatti nets his first of the night — The Impact made this attack look so easy, and Ignacio Piatti simply won’t miss a chance like this one.

26′ — Evan Bush left motionless as RSL equalize — Luis Silva took matters into his own hands, and boy did he connect with this effort!

29′ — Impact punish poor RSL defense — Guess who? Piatti has his second of the evening.

47′ — Hosts begin to pile it on — Anthony Jackson-Hamel played provider in the first two goals, so it’s only fair he got one of his own.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Ignacio Piatti (11′, 29′), Luis Silva (26′), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (47′)


The game in 100 words (or less): Orlando City and the Crew settled for a point apiece on Saturday night, but for the former the club is running out of opportunities to pick up points in the playoff race. Giles Barnes pulled a goal back for the hosts after Lalas Abubakar netted his first MLS goal for the Crew, but Orlando couldn’t find a second. The Lions played up a man for the final 13 minutes, following Harrison Afful’s dismissal.

Three moments that mattered

35′ — Abubakar knocks in first MLS goal — Orlando City’s defensive woes are certainly notable as well, but for Lalas Abubakar this is a quality way to open his scoring account in MLS.

67′ — Barnes knots it up at 1-1 — The veteran MLS forward picked up his second goal of the season.

77′ — VAR used for red card decision — The video monitor came into play briefly in the second half, and Harrison Afful was sent off the pitch early after the referee viewed the defender’s elbow to the head of Yoshi Yotun.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Zack Steffen

Goalscorers: Lalas Abubakar (35′), Giles Barnes (67′)

Atlanta United fans pack 20,000 into new stadium for training session

AP Photo/John Raoux
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Atlanta United is currently in the midst of a three-match road trip in MLS play, but that didn’t stop the club from unveiling its new home venue to a massive crowd of supporters on Saturday.

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Over 20,000 fans of the Eastern Conference expansion side filed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch Gerardo Martino’s side train on Saturday as Atlanta prepares to finish out its road trip against D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union.

Atlanta will open up home play at their new stadium on September 10 when they host FC Dallas. The club will have the benefit of playing eight of its final 10 regular season matches in front of its Georgia fan base.

The first-year MLS side will share the stadium with the Atlanta Falcons of the NFL.

Here are some sights from the training session