Real Betis Balompie v FC Barcelona - La Liga

Lots of love and links for Barcelona-A.C. Milan in Champions League

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With the Fascination Factor cranked up to 11 on so many other elements of Champions League – the mighty tussle in Manchester, Bayern breaking out against Arsenal, etc. – poor old bedraggled Barcelona just hasn’t gotten much love.

That will change today at the San Siro, where the Spanish leaders and their stockpiles of dazzle meet AC Milan. Win or lose, this will be a story. Kickoff is 2:45 p.m. on Fox Soccer Channel.

Barcelona has been tipped all along by oddsmakers to find their way to Wembley Stadium – and to lift a trophy there. There’s a real element of history here, too, for the Blaugrana, who have played two previous European championship finals at London’s hallowed ground, claiming glory in both. Barca won in 1992 and again just two years ago in 2011. In that one, Pep Guardiola’s men made stunningly easy work over a fine Manchester United team.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Barca assistant Jordi Roura, speaking at the teams’ official press conference ahead of today’s match in Italy, says the teams are closer in talent than people might think. Perhaps that was a counter balance to everything else said about this one, as few are giving Milan much chance.

So much so, in fact, that AC Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri took some umbrage, reminding everyone that his team fully intends to show up at the sold-out San Siro rather than just hand Barca the ticket into quarterfinal play.  “It annoys me that we are already considered as a sacrificial victim,” he said.

The clubs did meet just one year ago at the very same San Siro, where the Italians frustrated Barca and in a 0-0 draw in 2011-12 Champions League quarterfinal play. Here’s how the Serie A giants did it, with lots of dogged midfield physicality and by “pressing and sitting” in just the right balance.

In case you were wondering about trouble-making man-child Mario Balotelli, who has recently found his way to AC Milan, he can’t play. Doggone shame.

For Barcelona, midfield maestro Xavi appears fit after missing two consecutive La Liga contests. Just in case, here’s how the team might perform without him.

And now we’ve done it! We’ve already gone 250 words and change without mention of him. That would be the fabulous Leo Messi, among the game’s best yet.

Messi just recorded goals Nos. 300 and 301 for Barca while extending his record scoring streak to 14 consecutive La Liga contests. Let that sink in.

The dude is just 25. And yet, if he retired today Messi would do so as the fourth leading scorer in Champions League history. He has 56 goals and could easily climb to second on the all-time list before the current UCL campaign is complete. Heck, considering how Messi has changed the meaning of “plausible,” he could even do it today! The man truly is playing at a different level.

If you prefer to study team stats over individual ones, Tito Vilanova’s side can certainly supply those. For instance: the possession specialists from Barcelona have completed a whopping 85 percent of their passes in six previous Champions League matches this year, and have held the ball for 71 percent of the time in those contest. Find a few other statistical whoppers here.

Viktoria Plzen set to sign midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz

Obafemi Martins, Oniel Fisher, Andreas Ivanschitz
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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PRAGUE (AP) Czech champion Viktoria Plzen is close to signing Austrian midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz.

Plzen says Ivanschitz agreed terms for a contract lasting 1 + seasons and will sign it when the team returns from a training camp in Spain. Ivanschitz has already joined the squad at the Oliva Nova resort, the club says.

Ivanschitz helped the Seattle Sounders win their first MLS Cup in December.

[ NEW HOMES: Fonte | Berahino ]

No financial details were given.

The 33-year-old Ivanschitz also played for Rapid Vienna and Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, Mainz in the Bundesliga, Levante in Spain and Panathinaikos in Athens.

Ivanschitz played 69 games for Austria in 2003-14, scoring 12 goals.

FIFA allows Matip to represent Liverpool during AFCON

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Joel Matip of Liverpool heads to score his team's third goal during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Liverpool at Selhurst Park on October 29, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images
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Joel Matip is going to get to play for Liverpool during AFCON after all.

The center back had turned down the chance to represent Cameroon at the Africa Cup of Nations, and Liverpool was forced to apply to FIFA for a waiver.

[ PL PREVIEW: Swansea vs. Liverpool ]

Matip suffered an ankle injury in December, adding to his desire to stay at Anfield. He declared himself internationally retired and was one of six Cameroon players who refused call-ups for AFCON.

He last played for the Reds on Dec. 11, and can be selected by Jurgen Klopp against Swansea City on Saturday.

Man United captain Rooney raises $1.5m from charity game

FILE - A Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017 file photo of Manchester United's Wayne Rooney leaving the field after the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England. Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney says he raised 1.2 million pounds ($1.5 million) for charity from a friendly game against former club Everton last year. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
AP Photo/Dave Thompson
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney says he raised 1.2 million pounds ($1.5 million) from a friendly game against former club Everton last year.

That represents the profits, after operational costs, from August’s sellout match at Old Trafford and goes toward the Wayne Rooney Foundation’s target of raising 5 million pounds for children’s charities.

[ NEW HOMES: Fonte | Berahino ]

Rooney said: “I’d like to thank all the fans who came to the testimonial and made it such a special night. They’ve raised a huge amount of money for children who are disadvantaged and it will make a real difference to their lives.”

Rooney is one goal from breaking Manchester United’s scoring record, with the striker currently tied with Bobby Charlton on 249 goals.

Rooney joined United from Everton in 2004.

WATCH: Lewandowski’s juggling stoppage time winner

Bayern's Robert Lewandowski celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the German soccer Bundesliga match between SC Freiburg and FC Bayern Munich in Freiburg, Germany, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Patrick Seeger/dpa via AP)
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Robert Lewandowski picked up where he left off.

The Polish striker scored twice for Bayern Munich, once in stoppage time, as the Bavarians improved their Bundesliga lead to six points after toppling Freiburg 2-1 on Friday.

[ MORE: Bundesliga second half preview ]

And what a winner it was, Lewandowski taking a Douglas Costa cross with two juggling touches before hitting an offspeed bouncer inside the post.

It was the league’s first match following the winter/holiday break, giving Bayern a cushion before RB Leipzig takes the pitch against Eintracht Frankfurt in a Top Five tilt on Saturday.

Lewandowski moves closer to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the goal scoring chart. His 13th and 14th goals have him two back of Borussia Dortmund’s striker, as Lewandowski pursues a third Golden Boot in four seasons.

Full Weekend Schedule
Freiburg 1-2 Bayern Munich — Friday
Augsburg vs. Hoffenheim — Saturday
Schalke vs. Ingolstadt — Saturday
Darmstadt vs. Borussia Monchengladbach — Saturday
Werder Bremen vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Hamburger SV — Saturday
RB Leipzig vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Saturday
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Hertha Berlin — Sunday
Mainz vs. Koln — Sunday