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.

Serie A: Inter’s unbeaten start ends; Hamsik equals Maradona

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan’s unbeaten start to the season was brought to an unlikely end Saturday as the Nerazzurri were defeated 3-1 at home by Udinese and went on to lose top spot in Serie A.

Inter captain Mauro Icardi had canceled out Kevin Lasagna’s opener but Udinese put in an impressive second-half performance and took the lead through Rodrigo De Paul’s penalty before Antonin Barak sealed the result.

Napoli moved two points above Inter and back into the lead after winning 3-1 at Torino, with Marek Hamsik matching Diego Maradona’s scoring record.

“We’re obviously disappointed to have lost,” Inter coach Luciano Spalletti said. “Maybe it hurts a bit more because it’s been a bit of time since our last defeat and we’re not used to it anymore.

“It’s nothing to do with tiredness. The players seemed physically fine to me even in the second half when we made a lot of mistakes. The difference was we played the ball badly in the second half and made a lot of silly mistakes.”

Udinese moved 10 points clear of the relegation zone as its revival under new coach Massimo Oddo continued. Oddo has won three league matches after losing to Napoli in his opening game.

“What has changed since my arrival? No one has a magic wand. We do our work but then it’s the lads who go out onto the pitch,” Oddo said. “There’s still a lot of work to do but we are taking giant steps.

“This team never gives up and always gives everything … I think that winning at San Siro against Inter, which was first and unbeaten, is more due to how good my team was and not that Inter played badly.”

Udinese took the lead in the 14th minute when Silvan Widmer cut inside from the right, dribbled in the area and rolled the ball across for Lasagna to tap in.

However, Inter was back on level terms within a minute as Icardi volleyed home Antonio Candreva’s cross.

Inter dominated the rest of the first half and came close to taking the lead on several occasions but Oddo turned things around at the break, and it was Udinese which was stronger in the second period.

The visitors almost took the lead immediately after the restart but Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic somehow managed to deflect Lasagna’s effort over the bar from point-blank range.

Icardi also came close to doubling his tally but he headed a corner over the bar.

Minutes later Udinese was awarded a penalty for handball – after video review showed the ball had not crossed the line before Widmer’s cross was handled by Davide Santon.

De Paul sent his spot-kick straight down the middle to give Udinese the lead in the 61st.

Milan Skriniar almost leveled shortly after but his header came off the bar.

Udinese wrapped up all three points 13 minutes from time when Barak finished off a brilliant counterattack by heading in Jakub Jankto’s cross.

Marek Hamsik matched Diego Maradona’s all-time record of 115 goals for Napoli.

Hamsik reached that tally after 30 minutes on Saturday, scoring the third goal in Napoli’s 3-1 win at Torino.

Dries Mertens controlled the ball in the area and picked out Hamsik, who volleyed into to top right corner.

It has taken the Slovenia midfielder 11 seasons and 477 appearances to reach that tally, while Maradona, who was a forward, set that mark in 259 games in seven seasons with Napoli.

Kalidou Koulibaly had headed Napoli into the lead in the fourth minute and Piotr Zielinski doubled the visitors’ tally in the 25th.

Andrea Belotti netted a consolation for Torino shortly after the hour mark.

Federico Fazio scored a stoppage-time goal to help fourth-place Roma beat Cagliari 1-0 and remain four points behind Napoli.

The Argentine knew little about the goal, however, as Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno attempted to punch clear a free kick and it ricocheted off Fazio’s stomach and into the back of the net.

Cragno had earlier saved Diego Perotti’s weak penalty after the goalkeeper had fouled Edin Dzeko.

Video review was used on both incidents.

La Liga: Torres lifts Atleti into 2nd, just 3 points behind Barca

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Fernando Torres’ first goal in the Spanish league this season gave Atletico Madrid a hard-fought 1-0 win over Alaves on Saturday and lifted the club into second place behind Barcelona.

Torres broke the deadlock five minutes after going on in the 69th with Atletico’s attack stifled by Alaves’ well-positioned defense.

Diego Simeone’s team took advantage of Valencia’s 2-1 loss at Eibar as Atletico moved two points ahead of its title rival. Barcelona is three points ahead of Atletico before hosting Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.

“We didn’t have many chances to win the match, but were always in charge. The entry of (Angel) Correa, (Yannick) Carrasco and, especially, Torres gave us that extra bit that we needed to get the win,” Simeone said. “There is still a long way to go in the league. We only look toward our next game and keep trying to improve.”

Torres, a former Liverpool and Chelsea striker, made his run forward in sync with Sime Vrsaljko’s cross from the right flank before sliding to redirect the ball home with his left foot.

At 33 years old, Torres has had to settle for a role as a reserve player behind regular starters Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro. His goal was his first in any competition this campaign other than the brace he scored against Elche in the Copa del Rey.

Torres’ goal comes just before the arrival of even more competition in Atletico’s attack. Diego Costa and Victor “Vitolo” Machin will join the club in January when its ban on incorporating new players expires.

“I am happy for the goal that came after working so that the coach would play me,” Torres said. “Now I just have to keep at it to get more minutes.”

Despite its failure to reach the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Atletico is as sound as ever in the domestic competition where it is unbeaten through 16 rounds and has won four in a row.

Atletico’s unbeaten streak in La Liga stretches back 20 matches to last season since its loss at Villarreal on April 25.


Valencia took another blow to its surprise challenge for the league lead after losing its second consecutive away game.

Valencia forward Santi Mina equalized in the 57th to cancel out Takashi Inui’s opener for Eibar just after halftime.

But Eibar midfielder Joan Jordan powered in a header from a cross by Ivan Alejo to grab the 2-1 victory for the hosts with three minutes remaining.

The absence of suspended striker Simone Zaza and injured midfielder Carlos Soler showed as Valencia again dropped points away from its Mestalla Stadium. Valencia’s 1-0 defeat at Getafe two rounds ago ended its unbeaten season.

“We didn’t have the scoring touch we needed to take the lead and they took advantage of our inability to finish,” Valencia coach Marcelino Garcia Toral said. “I don’t recall any other chances for Eibar other than the ones they turned into goals. We have to congratulate them for the win, but a draw would have been fair.”

After only one win in the first eight rounds, Eibar has won four and drawn one to rise to seventh place and in contention for a Europa League berth.

The 2 Robbies: Man City Dominate Spurs, Everyone

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After Manchester City dominate Spurs on the back of an incredible performance from Kevin De Bruyne, the Robbies break down his impressive play and stamina (0:30), plus the guys discuss Ederson’s passing and Sterling’s goal scoring. Then, they look at the match from Spurs’ perspective (10:15) — was high pressing the right approach? With big wins from Palace and West Ham, Robbie and Robbie also discuss the “manager bump.” (19:00). And finally, R & R hit on Sunday’s matches (27:45) — West Brom vs. Man United & Bournemouth vs. Liverpool.

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.

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

PL Sunday preview: Can Man United, Liverpool keep pace?

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Highly unlikely to overcome 14- and 21-point deficits in the title race, respectively, Manchester United and Liverpool — along with the rest of the Premier League’s top-six — are merely in a race for second. West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth — their opponents on Sunday, respectively — fear relegation.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City untouchable; Chelsea, Arsenal win narrowly ]

West Brom vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Try telling Jose Mourinho, the only man in the PL still refusing to concede the title to Manchester City, that the title race is over. The performances have often been ugly and ground out until the final whistle — especially in the absence of Paul Pogba, who’ll once again be unavailable through suspension — but Mourinho’s men have won five of their last six (the only defeat coming last weekend, to Man City) as they head into Sunday’s annual trip to the Hawthorns, where they’ll face 19th-place West Brom. The Baggies haven’t won in their last 15 PL outings (eight draws), a woeful run which dates back to the second week of the 2017-18 season.

While United have been nearly impenetrable defensively (11 goals conceded in 17 games), a pair of costly errors — each committed by star striker Romelu Lukaku — cost the Red Devils dearly against City, as did their recurring inability (against the PL’s top teams) to control the game through possession and create scoring chances with consistency. The same struggles reared their ugly heads in a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday.

As poor as the results have been over the course of four months, West Brom can hang their hat on a decent defensive record — just 22 goals conceded in 17 games, which puts them squarely in the middle of the table. If Alan Pardew‘s side sets out to defend for 90 minutes, the Baggies might just get something out of Sunday’s clash. Pardew was quite pleased by the improvements he saw during Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance against United.

“We kept them very quiet and created on transition better moments, in the limited number that we had, than we did at Swansea,” he said. “That’s an improvement, but still an area to work on. We had some really strong performances — and if you get four or five ‘eights’ in your team that normally constitutes points.”

INJURIES: West Brom — OUT: Nacer Chadli (hip), Matt Phillips (hamstring), Craig Dawson (knee), James Morrison (achilles); RETURNING: Gareth Barry (thigh)| Man United — OUT: Paul Pogba (suspension), Eric Bailly (ankle), Marouane Fellaini (knee), Michael Carrick (heart)


Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Every time Liverpool take a step or two forward, they take a step or two right back to where they began. Case in point: back-to-back wins over Stoke City and Bright & Hove Albion, by a combined score of 8-1, which briefly vaulted them ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for the top-four; followed by back-to-back draws against bottom-half sides Everton and West Brom.

With that side, Jurgen Klopp‘s side is unbeaten in its last eight league games and boasts one of the league’s most potent attacking records (34 goals conceded in 17 games — third-most behind the two Manchester clubs).

Cherries boss Eddie Howe was encouraged by his side’s performances in that narrow loss to United, and the 40-year-old can sense that better days are on the near horizon.

“We’re disappointed because we’ve been beaten, but I’m really pleased with the performance,” he said. “I thought we were very good today and were very disciplined out of possession. We were also very good with the ball and created numerous chances. We really did establish ourselves in the game very early and there were some really good individual performances today. The team functioned very well.”

INJURIES: Bournemouth — OUT: Tyrone Mings (back), Brad Smith (hip), Adam Federici (knee) | Liverpool — OUT: Alberto Moreno (ankle), Adam Lallana (fitness), Joel Matip (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (back), Emre Can (suspensions); QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Sturridge (hamstring)