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.

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 2-1 New England Revolution (video)

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The game in 100 words (or less): For nearly 75 minutes, NYCFC couldn’t muster up any chances in the attacking third, but thankfully their captain did what he does best. David Villa scored his 19th goal of the season on Sunday night to pull out a 2-1 win against the New England Revolution, but it was rookie Jonathan Lewis that notched the winner. The visitors took the lead 20 minutes prior after Sean Johnson spilled a shot in front of his own goal, allowing Teal Bunbury to pounce on the rebound. NYCFC now moves to within four points of Eastern Conference leaders Toronto FC with nine matches remaining in the regular season.

Three four moments that mattered

16′ — Harrison breaks ankles, but Villa can’t finish — This might be the only time all see you’ll see David Villa miss a chance like this…

38′ — Johnson gets a finger tip to Rowe’s blast — Sean Johnson had no work to do in the first half, at least until Kelyn Rowe decided to rip a shot from distance just before halftime.

57′ — Johnson’s error grants Bunbury, Revs the lead — Look away, NYCFC fans.

77′ — Villa find the back of the net — When you need a goal, who you gonna call? That’s right. David Villa. The NYCFC captain is now up to 19 this season.

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Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Teal Bunbury (57′), David Villa (77′), Jonathan Lewis (90+4′)

Honoring victims of attacks, Barcelona wins league opener

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Wearing shirts honoring victims of the recent attacks in Spain, Barcelona opened its Spanish league season with a comfortable 2-0 win over Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Neymar double helps PSG cruise past Toulouse ]

Players had the word “Barcelona” instead of their names on the back of their shirts, and the Catalan hashtag “TOTSSOMBARCELONA” (We are all Barcelona) was on display around the Camp Nou stadium. The message was also shown on the stadium’s large screens, as well as on many banners carried by fans.

An emotional minute’s silence was held before the game as the music of Catalan cellist Pau Casals played in the background.

Before the minute was up, the more than 55,000 fans at the stadium broke into a round of applause and began chanting “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid), a chant which has become a symbol of people’s reactions to the attacks that killed 14 people and injured more than 120 in Barcelona and the nearby seaside resort of Cambrils.

Extra security was implemented in and around Camp Nou.

There was a minute’s silence before every Spanish league match this weekend.

Without Neymar and the injured Luis Suarez, Barcelona got off to a winning start in the league after consecutive losses to rival Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

It scored two goals three minutes apart near the end of the first half – an own-goal by Betis defender Alin Tosca and a close-range shot by Sergi Roberto. Both goals came after plays started by Gerard Deulofeu, one of the players expected to try to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

“We lost depth with Neymar’s departure and we have to find a way to overcome that,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said.

Lionel Messi looked lively but wasn’t able to score his 350th goal in La Liga. He came close, though, being denied by the woodwork three different times.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni contributed to this report.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Brighton breaks club record with signing of winger Jose Izquierdo

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Brighton hasn’t gotten off to the ideal start in its debut season in the Premier League, but a key reinforcement is on the way.

[ MORE: Chelsea tops Spurs at Wembley behind Alonso’s brace ]

After starting the 2017/18 campaign with back-to-back defeats, the Seagulls announced on Sunday the signing of Colombian winger Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge in Belgium for a record fee.

The 25-year-old spent three seasons in Belgium’s top flight and totaled 38 goals across all competitions for Brugge, prior to making the move to England.

Additionally, Izquierdo has worked his way into the Colombia squad as of late, and scored his first international goal for his country in June 2017 in a friendly against Cameroon.

MLS Follow Live — NYCFC hosts Revs, Minnesota meets Sounders

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Only two matches will feature on the MLS docket Sunday evening, but luckily two of the league’s most exciting teams will take to the pitch.

[ MORE: Toronto tops Fire as East leaders reach 50 points on season ]

First, New York City FC will attempt to continue its ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder when they host Kei Kamara and the New England Revolution.

In the night cap, the Seattle Sounders look to extend their unbeaten streak to nine matches when they welcome newcomers Minnesota United to CenturyLink Field.

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Here’s the schedule and kick-off times for Sunday’s two MLS fixtures.

New York City FC vs. New England Revolution — 6 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Minnesota United — 10 p.m. ET