Champions League Preview: It’s PSG-Barcelona, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic gets to play

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Anytime Zlatan Ibrahimovic faces Barcelona, the main subplot will be about one of the world’s best players facing the team that rejected him. Though Barcelona shelled out what was eventually booked as a $100 million price to get the Swedish superstar from Inter Milan in July 2009, the Catalans shipped him back to Italy 13 months later in what stands as the biggest failure of the all-world striker’s career. Despite winning a title in Spain, Ibrahimovic ended the season in Pep Guardiola’s dog house, with Barcelona eventually taking 30 cents on the dollar to give AC Milan one of the world’s transcendent talents.

While with the Blaugrana, Ibrahimovic (right) collected 22 goals and 13 assists in 46 appearances, many of which failed to give the striker his customary 90 minutes. In the two-plus years that’ve following, Ibrahimovic has 87 goals and 36 assists across 122 appearances with Milan and his current team, Paris Saint-Germain.

With Guardiola having left Barcelona, much of the underlying conflict between player and club is gone. In the buildup to the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal, Ibrahimovic has shown the same respectful awe most opponents hold ahead of a match against what he calls “the best team in the world.” Nearly three season after his disappointing year in Spain, “Ibra” seems to have found peace with his rejection.

source:  What’s left amid Ibrahimovic’s continued brilliance and Barcelona’s inability (read: unwillingness) to utilize a traditional striker or an attacker with any aerial ability is incredulity. Chalk it up to an anomaly, bad timing, or a conflict of styles between “Ibra” and a fellow superstar (Lionel Messi) being converted to a through-the-middle player, but it’s still remarkable one of the world’s best clubs couldn’t make room for one of the planet’s defining talents. Generations from now, fans who won’t have the time to watch all of their games will ask why a Messi-Ibrahimovic tandem couldn’t be made to work.

But Barça’s loss has ultimately become the Parisians’ gain, with Ibrahimovic having moved to Ligue 1 this summer. His addition has allowed PSG to put last year’s disappointing second place finish behind them. Thanks to Ibra’s 25 league goals, PSG sits seven points clear in France. To put Ibrahimovic’s performance in perspective, last season’s Ligue 1 Player of the Year (Eden Hazard) had 20 goals over the entire season.

Clearly Ibra would be a threat to any team has faces, but with Barcelona’s best defender (Carles Puyol) out, he is a particular threat to his former team. With the Parisians presumably willing to sit back, absorb Barça’s pressure, and use Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura, and Ezequiel Lavezzi to hit them on the counter, Ibrahimovic could find himself isolated against Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano.

That puts the big Swede in a position to be decisive in a match he was supposed to miss. A harsh red card in PSG’s first game against Valencia originally had Ibrahimovic suspended for Tuesday’s game. After UEFA corrected the error, France’s best player is set to take on a side he still calls “without doubt, the best team in the world.”

(MORE: Too soon for Bayern-Juventus.)

Notes

  • In addition to Puyol’s absence, Barcelona should be without attacker Pedro Rodríguez. Cristian Tello will likely start up top.
  • Left back Jordi Alba will return to Barça’s XI. Eric Abidal, returning from last year’s liver transplant, is expected to make Barcelona’s 18.
  • And David Beckham? Yeah, he’ll be there, likely starting on PSG’s bench.
  • PSG is still without midfielder Thiago Motta. Marco Veratti will start along side Blaise Matuidi in Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield, though it would be interesting to see Thiago Silva, the team’s best defender, put into a midfield role that would allow him more freedom to track Lionel Messi. PSG could then start Alex and Mamadou Sakho in central defense.
  • Messi set another record this weekend, scoring in his 19th consecutive La Liga match. His seven goals in Champions League trail Burak Yilmaz and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have each scored eight times.
  • Paris Saint-Germain returns to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995 when they eliminated Barcelona. That year’s semifinal appearance is the club’s best showing in Champions League.

Possible lineups

Paris Saint-Germain (4-4-2/4-2-2-2): Salvatore Sirigu; Maxwell, Thiago Silva, Alex, Gregory van der Wiel; Javier Pastore, Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi, Lucas Moura; Ezequiel Lavezzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Barcelona (4-3-3): Víctor Valdés; Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Piqué, Daniel Alves; Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernández; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Cristian Tello.

WATCH: Spain’s Saul smashes a shot past Italy’s Donnarumma

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Since returning from a loan at Rayo Vallecano, Saul Niguez has been a somewhat under the radar star at Atletico Madrid.

Coming off his best season with Atleti, the 22-year-old Saul is making an even bigger name for himself at the U-21 EURO this summer.

Spain’s Saul scored a hat trick past Gianluigi Donnarumma and Italy on Tuesday, and the second goal was laced with venom.

Getting onto the ball from 30-plus yards out, Saul smashed his shot with enough power that the ball barely had occasion to rotate.

Saul is under contract at the Vicente Calderon through 2022, and has three caps for Spain’s senior team, too. He was rated Atleti’s third-best performer by WhoScored this season.

Men in Blazers podcast: Transfer window, USMNT at Gold Cup, RBNY-NYCFC

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Men In Blazers are back with their latest podcast, and the boys are hitting club soccer here and abroad as well as Bruce Arena’s men in the red, white, and blue.

Rog and Davo break down transfer window activity, rumored and real; get a heat check on the USMNT heading into the Gold Cup; and recap the (Ray) Hudson River Derby.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Agent Jorge Mendes appears before judge in Falcao tax probe

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MADRID (AP) Football agent Jorge Mendes has told a Spanish judge that he had no involvement in the financial planning of client Radamel Falcao, who has been accused by a state prosecutor of tax fraud.

Mendes, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, appeared before a judge in a Madrid court for 45 minutes on Tuesday as part of the probe into whether there are grounds for the case against Falcao to go to trial.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Mendes’ agency, Gestifute, released a statement saying that “neither he nor his employees have ever intervened in the creation of corporate structures for his clients and much less provided any tax advice to them.”

Last month, a state prosecutor accused Falcao of defrauding Spain’s Tax Office of around $6 million from 2012-13. The alleged unpaid taxes were from money the Colombian player made from endorsement deals through image rights, not from the salary he was then being paid from club Atletico Madrid. Falcao now plays for Monaco.

Arfield, Adekugbe on Canada’s Gold Cup roster

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Burnley midfielder Scott Arfield and on-loan Brighton defender Samuel Adekugbe are among the players who will represent Canada in this summer’s Gold Cup.

Arfield, 28, was born in Scotland and earned the first of seven Canada caps in 2016, and Adekugbe returns to Vancouver from a year-long loan to Brighton and Hove Albion on June 30.

The pair join nine MLS players, two NASL player, and a USL player, with the rest of the group based outside North America.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Notably, Orlando City players Will Johnson and Cyle Larin were not called up by coach Octavio Zambrano.

Goalkeepers: Maxime Crepeau (Montreal), Milan Borjan (MKS Korona Kielce), Jayson Leutwiler (Shrewsbury Town)

Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe (Brighton and Hove Albion), Fraser Aird, Manjrekar James (Vasas Budapest), Dejan Jakovic (New York Cosmos), Adam Straith (FC Edmonton), Steven Vitoria (Lechia Gdansk), Marcel de Jong (Vancouver Whitecaps)

Midfielders: Scott Arfield (Burnley), Patrice Bernier (Montreal), Alphonso Davies (Vancouver), Raheem Edwards (Toronto FC), Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City), Mark-Anthony Kaye (Louisville City FC), Anthony Jackson-Hamel (Montreal), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto), Michael Petrasso (QPR), Samuel Piette (CD Izarra), Russell Teibert (Vancouver)

Forwards: Lucas Cavallini (CA Penarol), Tosaint Ricketts (Toronto)