Lionel Messi injury leaves PSG-Barcelona result open to interpretation

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For the second straight round, Barcelona will return to Spain with more questions than answers. While today’s 90-minute score is far kinder to the Blaugrana than during their Round of 16 scare, today’s 2-2 draw at Paris Saint-Germain comes with four ominous words: Lionel Messi is hurt.

The Barcelona star came off at halftime after putting his team up 1-0 in the 38th minute. The final moments of his day were spent near the sideline pushing at what appeared to be a right hamstring problem.

With Cesc Fábregas on in the second half, Barça and PSG looked destined to take the one-goal game back to Catalonia. Then a late rush of goals left the sides on even footing: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 78th minute goal fulled PSG even; a late Xavi Hernández penalty kick seemed to give Barcelona the win; but Blaise Matuidi’s stoppage time tally eventually provided PSG’s silver lining.

But until we know more about Messi’s injury, it’s impossible to put this result in context. If Messi can’t play eight days from now, Paris Saint-Germain are in great shape. True, they were drawn in their home leg and allowed two away goals, but for much of the match at the Parc de Princes, they seemed to be the better side. Messi’s opener against the run of play changed that dynamic, but with the teams even ahead of kickoff next Wednesday, PSG has reason to hope their plan can send them into the semifinals.

(MORE: Bayern worlds ahead of Juventus.)

Ancelotti’s plans go to waste

If Messi plays, however, that plan my prove as irrelevant as it was on Tuesday. So what if PSG were the better team over the first 38 minutes? Ezequiel Lavezzi’s shot off the woodwork in the fifth minute ultimately didn’t matter. Lucas Moura’s success down the right? Ibrahimovic’s 18th minute direct kick, forcing a diving stop from Víctor Valdes? Or the shot Ibrahimovic scuffed wide in the 25h after being set up eight yards?

source: APWith two pieces of gold in the 38th minute, Barcelona rendered all that insignificant. That’s when Daniel Alves, with the outside of this right foot, curled a ball over a defense pushing out from a corner kick. Messi sprinted by Moura and Javier Pastore, past a PSG defense that’d failed to reestablish its shape, and onto Alves’s ball. He drilled his left-footed volley into the ground, off Sirigu’s left post, and in for the opening goal.

As the teams went in for halftime, you couldn’t help but wonder what was going through the mind of Carlo Ancelotti, the PSG coach whose plan seemed so right from the get-go. His team was dropping very deep in defense, his back four willing to camp inside the penalty area long before Barcelona’s attack forced them to retreat. Ancelotti allowed his central defenders to come into midfield and challenge the withdrawn Messi, while the team’s counterattack was generating threat after threat with Moura on the right. Sometimes those threats resulted in shots on goal, other times they won free kicks that made the surprise selection of David Beckham seem prescient.

But just Lionel Messi can dominate a match (his Tuesday goal lifting his season total to a context-defying 59), the world’s best player can just as readily serve as an equalizer. For so many reasons, Paris Saint-Germain looked more likely to find the first goal, with Barcelona’s only hints of potential being Andrés Iniesta’s 20-plus-yard shots taken in front of a recoiling midfield. Yet with a sharp angle finish that did justice to the brilliant ball he was served, Messi’s moment of magic proved more valuable than 38 minutes from PSG’s 11 stars.

If it weren’t for Víctor Valdes’s work before the goal, Messi’s may not have been the opener. Defender Gerard Piqué was particularly strong, giving one of his better performances of the season. The near 70 percent possession Barça held during the first half also limited their exposure. And Alves’s pass? It was the best of the Champions League season.

But ultimately, it was Messi who made all that work pay off.

(MORE: Three goals in 15 minutes close PSG-Barça – Highlights)

source: Getty ImagesLate match explosion

Barça’s clean sheet was ruined in the 79th minute after being left to defend a restart without two defenders. Given how the ball was served, it’s unlikely Javier Mascherano or Jordi Alba (injured in the preceding sequence) could have helped when Thiago Silva provided the high point of his stand-out performance, uncoiling on a ball from 12 yards out. The resulting rebound off the left post came to Ibrahimovic, who pulled the Parisians even.

Barcelona regained their lead just before fulltime when Xavi Hernández converted from the spot, the penalty kick rewarded after a clumsy Sirigu takedown of Alexis Sanchez following a backheel from Fábregas. Yet minutes later, a ball knocked down by Ibrahimovic for Blaise Matuidi set up the midfielder for a deflected shot that beat Valdes.

The way PSG scored their goals will be particularly concerning to Barcelona. Defending aerial balls will always be a problem for them, but with Carles Puyol, it becomes a major liability. Silva’s play on the 79th minute restart came as Gerard Piqué and little else had to defend Silva, Alex, and Ibrahimovic. Then in stoppage time, a ball lofted from the right by Christophe Jallet allowed Ibrahimovic to set up Matuidi.

(MORE: Highlights of Bayern’s cruise past Juve.)

Just deserts and moving on

A sliver of controversy will follow the tie to Barcelona, with Ibrahimovic appearing to have been offside position ahead of his goal. Yet the result was no less than the Parisians deserved. While the teams played an even match after Messi’s opener, it was PSG that came out the better team with a superior plan. Had they broken through with one of their early chances, Barcelona would have been left to solve an often debilitating scenario: Breaking down a deep, tightly organized team with a group particularly ill-equipped to bust bunkers.

But thanks to Messi, Barcelona got on the board first, a fact that brings us full circle. Until we know Messi’s status for leg two, it’s impossible to assess the value of today’s result. If he’s healthy, Barcelona did well to get two goals in Paris. If he can’t go, they may be left wishing they’d got more than one score in the 45 minutes where they had their star.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.

Conte feels pressure, but “most important thing is to work”

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Chelsea has sputtered a bit in its bid to repeat as Premier League champions, though this isn’t quite “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The Blues sit fifth in the Premier League table with 13 points, nine behind leaders Manchester City, and tossed away a 2-0 lead before rallying to draw Roma at midweek.

The Blues host fourth-placed Watford to kick off Saturday’s Premier League action at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)

[ MORE: West Ham 0-3 Brighton ]

And while fans are frustrated with the plan, Chelsea was in 15th at the end of October during Jose Mourinho’s ill-fated follow-up to the 2014-15 Premier League title.

Still, manager Antonio Conte feels their pain, although he’s satisfied with the effort. From Chelsea’s official site:

“Do I feel the pressure? Every manager feels pressure, but I try to give all of myself into my job, so I’m happy when I go home because I know in every moment I give all of myself for the fans, the players and the club. In football you know anything can happen, but the most important thing is to work.”

Chelsea may not look as good as Man City or Manchester United, but is still well-positioned to finish amongst the leaders and is leading a very difficult UCL group with Roma and Atletico Madrid. Things are fine, but the gossip storm just won’t leave Conte and his future at Chelsea alone (Thanks, Italian press).