AC Milan's Muntari celebrates with teammates after scoring against Barcelona during their Champions League soccer match at the San Siro stadium in Milan

Offshore drilling, UEFA Champions League: at AC Milan 2, Barcelona 0

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If you think today’s result will just be a one-off, your memory’s short. This is how Chelsea did it last year. This is how Manchester United did it in 2008 and how Chelsea nearly derailed them a year later. This is how Barcelona goes out, but unlike recent years that saw opponents get a goal and hold out, Milan got two. And now one of the tournament favorites is on the brink of leaving UEFA Champions League before they’ve even managed to threaten their opponent’s goal.

That’s how surprisingly lopsided today’s match was, though that imbalance won’t be reflected in the possession stat. At 73 percent, Barcelona held even more of the ball than they’re used to. Yet paradoxically, their attack was far more feeble, only putting one shot on Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati. Barça never showed the will or ability to solve what’s becoming a surprisingly reliable formula.

That formula: Defend. It’s not complicated. Just keep defending to the extreme and wait for your chances, no matter how long it takes. If you stay focused, camp behind the ball, and force Barcelona to move through you, they can be beat. All you need is one moment – one good bounce, one swift movement – and you can derail one of the best teams in the world.

“The result is definitely unexpected,” Milan midfielder Riccardo Montolivo conceded after his team’s 2-0 victory. “We faced the best team in the world.”

Milan’s first moment came in the 57th minute, the first real chance of a game that had been chance-less. Off a restart near the edge of their attacking third, Milan let midfielder  Montolivo try from distance. His shot from 30 yards out hit a Barcelona player, went off the hand of Cristian Zapata, and fell for Kevin Prince-Boateng. The Milan attacker turned on his left foot and fired with his right from just inside the box, the bang-bang action leaving Victor Valdés flat-footed as the game’s winning goal flexed the right side of his net.

It was a stroke of bad luck for the Catalans, but sauntering through their road leg with the intensity of camel, Barça was ripe to be caught. It nearly happened in the 11th minute, when Milan broke with numbers after a corner kick. It almost happened in the 16th minute, when a poor touch from Stephan El Shaarawy is all that prevented a point-blank chance on goal. Thanks to long passes from Montolivo and the constant threat of El Shaarawy getting behind right back Dani Alves, Milan was always one movement away from taking the lead.

“We couldn’t create chances, Milan was well-organized,” Alves said before conceding, “We could have competed a bit better.”

Lightning stuck for a second time in the 80th minute when a ball chipped forward M’Baye Niang allowed the French teenager to find El Shaarawy in the box. The young Italian lifted a ball over the right side of Barça’s defense for an oncoming Sulley Muntari, whose finish back across goal put Barcelona on the edge of elimination.

“It was the most important goal of my career,” Muntari said afterward.

No doubt Barcelona controlled the match, but their command was passive, their assured but serene possession playing into Milan’s hands. With three compact midfielders, wingers tracking deep, and a defensive so far back they rarely had to worry about anything behind them, the Rossoneri willing ceded a control that never mattered. They may have only held 27 percent possession, but putting three shots on goal to Barcelona’s one, Milan were the more dangerous side.

“This is a very negative result,” Iniesta said after the match. “When you don’t show up for the game, this can happen.”

With their 2-0 victory, Milan proved more than opportunistic. They were the better side, one that leaves Barcelona needing two goals to have a chance of survival. But even before worry about converting chances, Barça needs to figure out who to create some.

source:  Man of the Match: Montolivo and El Shaarawy were key to how Milan set up, but Kevin Prince Boateng’s finish is what set Milan on their way. Not everybody would have gotten that shot on goal, let alone hit a ball so well that the opposition keeper was left flat-footed. Reflexively shooting as he turned on the ball, Prince allowed Milan to reap the rewards of an extreme but highly successful approach.

And the former Ghanian international did his part on the other end, too, coming back from his right wing position to set up in the area normally patrolled by Andrés Iniesta. The Barça star had a quiet day, and although it was unclear Boateng was the cause of that, his positioning and willingness certainly helped, particularly when he was called on to track Jordi Alba’s runs (as he memorably did to win a ball behind Milan’s line in the 43rd minute).

Threesome of knowledge: What we learned

Allegri, Milan have come a long way – In the wake of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Thiago Silva sale, Milan got off to a terrible start to the season. They fell to the bottom half of the Serie A table while struggling to get through their Champions League group.

Now the team sits third and have a path into the Champions League quarterfinals. What happened?

Massimiliano Allegri was given time to figure his new team out, something that didn’t look certain to happen as the Rossoneri stumbled out of the gate. But slowly Allegri determined El Shaarawy was capable of carrying the scoring burden. He incorporated Montolivo, tweaked Prince’s role, and forged a viable central defense from Philippe Mexes, Cristian Zapata, and Mario Yepes.

Along the way, he moved away from Alexandre Pato. Robinho is no longer a major part of this team. Antonio Nocerino, a find last season, isn’t a vital cog in midfield.

Six months after fans were calling for his ouster, Allegri took apart Barcelona. That’s how far his team has come.

source: Getty ImagesWhere did Lionel Messi go? – The best player in the world was a complete non-factor. Milan was tight and compact through the middle, giving Messi no space to work, but even when the Balon d’Or winner started going wide right in an attempt to find room to work, he failed to have an impact on the game. Aside from a 29th  flash when he beat left back Kevin Constant, Messi might as well have been on the sidelines.

For only the second time this season, Messi was held without a shot on goal.

It’s not like Barcelona’s other stars were much better. Xavi Hernández and Andres Iniesta played a bigger part in the game, but that’s to be expected. Milan wasn’t crowding the areas were they operate. Cesc Fábregas and Pedro Rodríguez? Their names were rarely called.

Messi, however, usually finds a way to break through. Even when he’s off, he’s capable of finding a moment of brilliance. Tonight, he wasn’t even close.

A portable approach – Milan’s tactics weren’t complicated. They weren’t dependent on anything specific to the San Siro, and as we’ve seen in recent years, other teams have been able to execute this approach on the road. There’s no reason why Milan can’t replicate this performance in Spain. Carrying two goals out of the San Siro, they even have license to be more extreme.

Barcelona may be able to break through in Spain, but odds are they’ll lose if they don’t change things up. They know their recent history. They know they need a Plan B. They can’t just assume dogma will win out.

The question is whether they can change. Do they have enough diversity of talent within the team to make the necessary changes? Is there even enough familiarity with a different approach to make those tweaks viable? Is there the will to try?

Barcelona’s in big trouble, and their problems transcend the score. They’re not a team well equipped to address this kind of challenge. They may be left with no recourse but to play their normal style and hope this time it wins out.

Packaged for takeaway

  • Victor Valdés actually had a good day, particularly in the first half where a couple of aggressive reads helped him snuff out changes before they developed. But there was little he could have done to prevent either goal.
  • The matchup between El Shaarawy and Alves was a particularly interesting one, with the young Italian tasked with tracking the Barcelona wingback. Early, it became evident Milan was going to try and exploit Alves’s want to push forward, with Montolivo constantly firing diagonals behind the Barça right back. Though the matchup never really bore fruit, it still helped define how Milan set up.
  • Mario Balotelli is cup-tied, having appeared in the competition with Manchester City. He was seen celebrating on the sidelines during the match’s final moments.
  • Looking at Barcelona’s bench, it’s unclear how they could have significantly changed their team. Alexis Sanchez came on, and Javier Mascherano eventually replaced a cut Carles Puyol, but the rest of the team represents a series of more-or-less like-for-like options: Alexander Song, Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya, and Thiago Alcantera.

Stay with us throughout Wednesday as we take a look at the day’s other match, Turkish champions Galatasaray hosting Germans Schalke 04.

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern held to draw, but Dortmund can’t capitalize

Leverkusen's Javier Hernandez, top, and Bayern's David Alaba challenge for the ball during the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Germany’s top flight…

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Bundesliga coverage ]

Bayer Leverkusen 0-0 Bayern Munich

The race for Bundesliga title could have been blown wide open pried open ever so slightly after Bayern Munich dropped two points away to 5th-place side Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. It was far from a classic encounter, with just 15 shots managed between the two sides (3 on target). Bayern’s best chance came during the game’s final 10 minutes, when Robert Lewandowski nearly won it very late on.

The hosts’ best chance at pulling off the shock upset came on 53 minutes, when Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s volley from 25 yards out flashed just wide of Manuel Neuer’s right-hand post.

Hertha Berlin 0-0 Borussia Dortmund

The above possibility hinged, of course, on the only side within 18 points of Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, taking all three points from their visit to 3rd-place Hertha Berlin. They could not do so, thus remain eight seemingly insurmountable points behind the three-time defending champions.

U.S. national team defender John Brooks, who last week signed a new contract to remain at Hertha, is now one point closer to qualifying for the UEFA Champions League with his hometown club.

Schalke 3-0 Wolfsburg

Right on Hertha’s heels, two points back in fourth, is Schalke, who hammered Wolfsburg on Saturday, thanks to goals scored by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Johannes Geis and Alessandro Schopf. That’s three wins in their last four league games for Schalke, while Hertha have left the door wide open with three straight draws.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Borussia Monchengladbach 5-1 Werder Bremen (Friday)
Eintracht Frankfurt 2-4 Stuttgart
Hannover 0-1 Mainz
Ingolstadt 2-1 Augsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hamburg vs. Koln (9:30 a.m. ET)
Hoffenheim vs. Darmstadt (11:30 a.m. ET)

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Bayern Munich 20 17 2 1 50 9 41 10-0-0 7-2-1 53
Borussia Dortmund 20 14 3 3 52 24 28 8-1-0 6-2-3 45
Hertha BSC Berlin 20 10 5 5 29 21 8 6-3-1 4-2-4 35
FC Schalke 04 20 10 3 7 29 26 3 6-2-3 4-1-4 33
Bayer Leverkusen 20 9 5 6 29 21 8 5-3-2 4-2-4 32
Mönchengladbach 20 10 2 8 40 35 5 7-1-3 3-1-5 32
FSV Mainz 05 20 9 3 8 25 24 1 5-1-4 4-2-4 30
VfL Wolfsburg 20 7 6 7 29 28 1 6-3-1 1-3-6 27
FC Ingolstadt 04 20 7 5 8 14 21 -7 4-2-4 3-3-4 26
1. FC Köln 19 6 7 6 20 25 -5 3-4-3 3-3-3 25
VfB Stuttgart 20 7 3 10 31 41 -10 4-1-5 3-2-5 24
Hamburger SV 19 6 4 9 21 27 -6 2-2-5 4-2-4 22
FC Augsburg 20 5 6 9 22 28 -6 2-3-5 3-3-4 21
Eintracht Frankfurt 20 5 6 9 26 34 -8 3-3-4 2-3-5 21
Darmstadt 19 5 6 8 19 29 -10 1-4-5 4-2-3 21
Werder Bremen 20 5 4 11 24 41 -17 1-2-6 4-2-5 19
1899 Hoffenheim 19 2 8 9 18 28 -10 1-5-3 1-3-6 14
Hannover 96 20 4 2 14 19 35 -16 2-0-8 2-2-6 14

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea vs. Man United, Bournemouth vs. Arsenal

Manchester United's Ander Herrera reacts after missing a chance during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes are quickly slipping away, thanks to their current four-game winless run — not to mention Leicester City’s red-hot form — much like Manchester United see themselves falling away from the race for the top-four.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Bournemouth are desperately hoping just to avoid a relegation dogfight that goes down to the wire, and Chelsea… well, they’re just kind of there, still sitting in the bottom half of the league table. Sunday’s pair of PL fixtures is full of storylines and implications in the context of the season as a whole.

Bournemouth vs. Arsenal — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

Arsenal’s recent form couldn’t have come at a worse time, which is hardly surprising when considering they’d been far and away the best team in England for a little over 12 straight months; they were bound to slip up at some point. Having been top of the league themselves barely two weeks ago, the Gunners have fallen to fourth, eight points behind Leicester. Not even the return of Alexis Sanchez has provided the much-needed spark for an attack that has failed to find the back of the net in three straight games (305 minutes in total, dating back to their 3-3 draw with Liverpool).

As for Bournemouth, only Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur (9 each) have won more points from their last three league fixtures than the Cherries (7). Callum Wilson (five goals), whose season ended back on Sept. 26 (knee), remains Bournemouth’s leading scorer on the season, though Arsenal youth academy product Benik Afobe has proven an inspired January signing thus far (three goals in four games). Bournemouth are winless in their two all-time meetings with the Gunners, dating back to a 3-0 League Cup defeat in 1987. When these sides met for the first time this season, back on Dec. 28, it was Arsenal who were victorious, 2-0 at the Emirates Stadium.

On the injury front, Bournemouth have a mostly clean bill of health, as Junior Stanislas (knee) is the only recent addition to long-term absentees Wilson, Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings. For Arsenal, Santi Cazorla (knee), Tomas Rosicky (thigh) and Carl Jenkinson (knee) will all miss another month at least, while Jack Wilshere (leg) and Danny Welbeck (knee) remain without definitive timetables to return.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Chelsea vs. Manchester United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and Live Extra

This one used to really mean something. Those were the days, weren’t they? These days, Chelsea need a win just to leapfrog Crystal Palace for 12th place. On a positive note, the Blues are unbeaten in 10 games in all competitions since the departure of Jose Mourinho, but have won just three of eight league games during that period. Diego Costa is scoring goals semi-regularly again, but he’s also acting out in his usual Sunday League-like manner, which means he could either spontaneously combust on the field of play, or hop the next flight back to Madrid without telling anyone what’s going on.

As for Man United, they’re actually scoring goals these days (six combined in their last two games – all competitions), which has Louis Van Gaal dreaming of a title challenge once again. On a really positive note, Wayne Rooney has scored seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions (five in five in the PL) and has forged a really sound partnership with 20-year-old Anthony Martial up top (three assists, one goal in last two games – all competitions). A top-four place is still a very realistic target for the Red Devils — though it likely won’t matter with regards to Van Gaal’s job status — but it’ll take everything Rooney and Martial have between them to overcome Van Gaal’s ultra-defensive tactics and score enough goals to get there.

When these sides met on the final matchday of 2015, the proceedings at Old Trafford ended a stale 0-0 draw one might expect from a Van Gaal-versus-Mourinho meeting of the minds, if only the Portuguese had still been in charge at the time. On the injury front, Chelsea are nearly 100 percent healthy, with only Radamel Falcao (leg) still unavailable for selection. For United, the latest injury report is extensive: Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Phil Jones (ankle) and Marcos Rojo (shoulder) will all miss Sunday’s clash, while Marouane Fellaini (knock) is questionable.

Premier League roundup: Foxes, Spurs pace the PL, New club in drop zone

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06:  Riyad Mahrez (R) and Kasper Schmeichel (L) of Leicester City celebrate their team's win in the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Leicester City at the Etihad Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Say it again, folks: Leicester City isn’t going away.

The Foxes went into the Etihad Stadium and battered Manchester City on Saturday, and now lead the table by five points. Leicester is ahead of fifth place Manchester United by 13 after a 3-1 win over City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

We also have a new second-placed team, and a new side in the drop zone as well. Let’s run through the eight games we caught Saturday from the United Kingdom.

Manchester City 1-3 Leicester CityRECAP

Robert Hugh scored two goals and Riyad Mahrez had one sandwiched in between as the Foxes continued their surprising run at the top of the league with a comprehensive win over Man City. Sergio Aguero pulled one back late because, well, he’s Sergio Aguero. City blew a big chance to state their title claim.

Stoke City 0-3 Everton – RECAP

Mark Hughes has watched his Potters give up three goals for the third-straight match, and the Potters fell to 1W-1D-3L during the most recent injury absence for Geoff Cameron. Meanwhile, the Toffees got goals from three different players in the first half in moving up the table.

Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Watford – RECAP

Spurs kept knocking, and finally broke through when Dele Alli‘s cross found ex-Burnley back Kieran Trippier. It was a dominant win for the new second-place Spurs, while Watford is 10th.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Norwich City at Villa Park on February 6, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
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Aston Villa 2-0 Norwich City – RECAP

The visitors left Villa Park in the drop zone after falling to goals from veterans Gabriel Agbonlahor and Joleon Lescott. Norwich trails Newcastle by a single point.

Swansea City 1-1 Crystal Palace – RECAP

Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Hennessey were the stars here, though the first bested the latter on an early free kick to make it 1-0. Scott Dann tied it up, and Hennessey made several saves to make sure Palace picked up a point for the first time in six PL matches.

Southampton 1-0 West Ham United – RECAP

Maya Yoshida put Saints up early, and Southampton was able to hold off the Irons despite going down to 10 men thanks to Victor Wanyama‘s sliding takedown of Dimitri Payet in the 53rd minute. Southampton has pulled to within a pair of points of sixth-place West Ham.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on February 6, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
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Newcastle United 1-0 West Bromwich Albion – RECAP

Nothing’s easy for the Magpies, who dominated possession and shot attempts but only beat the Baggies once. The goal belonged to Aleksandar Mitrovic off another slick feed from reenergized Jonjo Shelvey, and the Magpies are one point clear of the drop zone.

Liverpool 2-2 Sunderland – RECAP

Playing without a sick Jurgen Klopp didn’t seem like a problem when Roberto Firmino scored a goal and set up Adam Lallana for another. Sam Allardyce‘s Black Cats provided a shock late, though, as Adam Johnson and Jermain Defoe picked up goals to keep Sunderland within four points of safety.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 25 15 8 2 47 27 20 7-4-1 8-4-1 53
Tottenham Hotspur 25 13 9 3 45 19 26 7-4-2 6-5-1 48
Manchester City 25 14 5 6 47 26 21 9-1-3 5-4-3 47
Arsenal 24 13 6 5 37 22 15 7-3-2 6-3-3 45
Manchester United 24 11 7 6 31 21 10 6-4-2 5-3-4 40
West Ham United 25 10 9 6 38 29 9 5-5-2 5-4-4 39
Southampton 25 10 7 8 33 24 9 7-2-4 3-5-4 37
Everton 25 8 11 6 46 34 12 4-4-5 4-7-1 35
Liverpool 25 9 8 8 32 36 -4 4-5-3 5-3-5 35
Watford 25 9 6 10 27 27 0 5-3-5 4-3-5 33
Stoke City 25 9 6 10 24 31 -7 5-2-5 4-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 25 9 5 11 26 30 -4 4-2-7 5-3-4 32
Chelsea 24 7 8 9 32 34 -2 4-4-4 3-4-5 29
West Bromwich Albion 25 7 8 10 23 32 -9 4-4-5 3-4-5 29
Bournemouth 24 7 7 10 29 39 -10 3-4-4 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 25 6 9 10 24 33 -9 4-5-4 2-4-6 27
Newcastle United 25 6 6 13 26 44 -18 4-5-4 2-1-9 24

Norwich City 25 6 5 14 28 48 -20 4-3-5 2-2-9 23
Sunderland 25 5 5 15 30 49 -19 3-3-6 2-2-9 20
Aston Villa 25 3 7 15 20 40 -20 2-4-6 1-3-9 16

Official: Vardy rewarded for stellar season with new 3.5-year contract

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Manchester United, his eleventh consecutive goal in the Premier League, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Vardy becomes the first man to score in 11 consecutive English Premier League soccer matches after finding the back of the net against Manchester United today.(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
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Jamie Vardy has been handsomely rewarded for his stellar 2015-16 Premier League season, in the form of a brand new three-and-a-half-year contract that will keep the 29-year-old striker at Leicester City until the summer of 2019, the club announced on Saturday.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

So back off, Chelsea and Liverpool and Manchester City and anyone else who might have dreamt of poaching the 18-goal-scorer (so far) this summer; the Foxes’ star man is staying put.

According to numerous reports, Vardy’s new deal will pay him more than $115,000 per week, nearly doubling his previous $65,000-per-week contract, which he signed at the start of the 2014-15 season.

When you score goals like this, on top of having already broken the Premier League record by scoring a goal in 11 consecutive games, you’re bound be paid like one of the world’s top strikers, which is exactly what Vardy’s been this season.

From non-Football League side Fleetwood Town, to top of the Premier League and title favorites, to financially set for the rest of his life… all in less than 48 months’ time.