APTOPIX Spain Soccer Champions League

Pedro strike sends Barcelona through on away goals

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Their nightmare unfolded for 70 minutes, Barcelona fans left ruminate over a Paris Saint-Germain performance that had not only stole an early second half lead but monopolized all the chances on goal. Seventeen times the likes of David Villa and Cesc Fabregas had tried to test Salvatore Sirigu, but with each errant hope’s collision with the side netting, flight into the stands, or meeting with a phalanx of PSG defenders, Blaugrana supporters were reminded of the two things that were about to see them out of Champions League: Lionel Messi was hurt; and their side had been second best.

When Messi’s 62nd minute arrival failed to pay immediate dividends, the feeling started to grow: PSG’s 3-2 (aggregate) lead might actually hold up.  Then, in a piece of sublime execution that could have been written on Jordi Roura’s whiteboard, Barcelona’s focal point ignited the move that secured his team’s Champions League survival.

(MORE: Bayern advances, and the state of Italian soccer.)

In the 71st minute, Messi received a pass in his office – the area right above the arc. His short ball forward found David Villa making a run through the box, with the Spanish international able to carry the ball across two defenders. Drawing in the opposition, Villa laid off for Pedro Rodríguez, whose assured strike into the right of goal hit PSG’s defense with a realization of the inevitable. As their shoulders sank under the burden of their new reality, you knew Barcelona was going through.

The feeling was familiar but still surprising, given how the match had unfolded. The idea that Barcelona would, of course, find a way to dismiss Paris Saint-Germain felt right, even if that idea had no place in the match’s first 71 minutes. The speed of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Lucas Moura gave Barcelona problems from the opening kickoff, and while the home side was initially able to match the Parisians’ chances with half-threats of their own, eventually PSG became the dictating force. By halftime, Barcelona’s possession gave them little more than reprieves between PSG attacks, and when Zlatan Ibrahimovic set Javier Pastore past Dani Alves early in the second half, the visitors finally translated pressure into product.

For the next 20 minutes, two banks of four formed PSG’s line. It wasn’t Chelsea-esque, but it was single-minded: Survive the next 40 minutes, and Barcelona’s out. Ultimately, Barça found a crack, leaving the Parisians to ponder where they could have found one more goal over the match’s 180 minutes.

source: APThat Barcelona was forced to lean on away goals to eliminate them might evolve into a point of pride, but when they think back over this year’s quarterfinal, PSG may see themselves as the better side for much of the tie. And rightfully so. Yes, Barcelona controlled the ball, but Paris Saint-Germain created more chances. They were able to play within their comfort zone for most of the round. The tie unfolded exactly as they would have requested. All that’s left is for them to regret that  planning and fortune couldn’t be parlayed into results.

But some credit is due Victor Valdes (right), a man whose recent performances for club and country are starting to justify the lofty praise his club’s supporters have constantly adorned. Gerard Piqué is also due some plaudits, the defender who has struggled for much of the season raising his level over the quarterfinals. Andres Iniesta deserves credit for pushing the team before Messi’s arrival, and of course, there’s Messi, whose first leg score and second leg contribution played a part in Barcelona’s only open play goals.

When 180 minutes ends 3-3, you can afford some mealy-mouthed conclusions, like Barcelona’s individuals carrying their squad past the better team. Those are the type of vagaries often used while try to explain that one side (PSG) had the better plan, superior organization, and would be more likely to win if the circumstances unfolded again. But in the talents of players like Messi, Iniesta, and Valdes, Barcelona has equalizers – the type of performers you need to advance through round after round knowing somewhere along the way, you just might be outplayed.

It’s a testament to Barcelona that they can face one of the most talented teams in the world, have an inferior plan, generally be outplayed (if only slightly), and advance despite the temporary loss of their best player. They may face a more talented squad in the semifinals, but they’re unlikely to face as many obstacles.

Napoli fans wear Koulibaly masks to support defender after racial abuse

NAPLES, ITALY - FEBRUARY 07:  Fans of Napoli  during the Serie A match between SSC Napoli and Carpi FC at Stadio San Paolo on February 7, 2016 in Naples, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
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Napoli fans showed their support for Kalidou Koulibaly on Sunday after the Senegalese center-back was the subject of racial abuse in a match against Lazio last week.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

The Lazio match was temporarily stopped in the second half as Lazio supporters hurled racial insults at Koulibaly.

At Napoli’s match against Carpi on Sunday, fans wore Koulibaly masks and painted signs in his honor to show their support for the 24-year-old defender.

A statement from Napoli’s supporters’ group read: “Everyone in Naples is offended by what happened to our young star. Because of this, we want to show our full support to Koulibaly.”

[ VIDEO: Van Gaal rips journalist who questions his Manchester United future ]

Lazio was fined more than $50,000 and will be forced to close certain sections of their stadium for the next two league matches because of the incident.

Afobe says he scored 15 goals a game with Harry Kane at the Arsenal academy

during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and A.F.C. Bournemouth at Selhurst Park on February 2, 2016 in London, England.
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Benik Afobe and Harry Kane are Premier League foes, but as kids, they were teammates.

Now Afobe is at Bournemouth and Kane at Tottenham, though both strikers played together with the Arsenal U-9 team as children.

[ RECAP: Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal ]

While Kane left Arsenal at 10 and eventually settled at crosstown rivals Tottenham, Afobe stayed under contract with the club until 2015 despite never making an appearance for the Gunners.

Afobe went on six loan spells before moving to Wolverhampton last season, then joining Bournemouth in January.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

With three goals in his first five Premier League matches for the Cherries, Afobe is no stranger to scoring, as he said he would combine with Harry Kane for 15 goals a game back in the day.

I’ve got pictures of us from Arsenal.

He was so small at the time, a bit of a late developer, but he’s always loved scoring. The scores used to be 17-15 and stuff – we just knew we’d score in every game.

But it’s weird because he used to play in goal sometimes, and wasn’t bad actually. You wouldn’t think it – remember that goal he let in for Tottenham a couple of years ago (against Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League) when he had to play in goal.

I think Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs’ supporters are happy Harry Kane chose to play striker over goalkeeper…

[ MORE: Deficiencies visible on both sides as Chelsea draw Manchester United ]

Kane has proven that he is an elite goalscorer in the Premier League, and Afobe is off to a fine start himself. With both players just 22-years-old, we’ll likely be seeing many more goals to come from the duo.

Gary Neville under pressure as Valencia without a win in nine

EIBAR, SPAIN - DECEMBER 13:  Head coach Gary Neville of Valencia CF reacts during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and Valencia CF at Ipurua Municipal Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Eibar, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
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Gary Neville was appointed manager at Valencia on December 2. He is still yet to win a La Liga match.

After falling 1-0 to Real Betis on Sunday, Neville is now winless in nine league matches at Valencia as pressure grows on the new boss.

[ MORE: La Liga & Serie A roundup ]

Some have called for Neville to step down from his position, as the club has fallen from 8th to 13th and now sit just four points clear of the drop.

However, the former Manchester United legend has said he has been judged too quickly and will work hard to turn things around.

I said before I came that I would be judged in five months. I have been judged in six weeks.

There’s no doubt that at times like this everyone needs to stay together.

Everyone suffers. It’s just not going for us at the moment. I continue to work, I continue to have belief.

Conversations with the owners are between me and the owners. We have to turn it round quickly, I understand that. It is hard to explain the defeat. It will turn.

Not only has Neville struggled in La Liga play, but he has also seen Valencia bounced from the Champions League and saw his side smashed 7-0 by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semifinal.

[ MORE: Player ratings from Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United ]

Valencia’s next league match is on Saturday against Espanyol, who sit three points below Valencia and haven’t won a match since December. If Neville fails to win again, there could be some real trouble at the Mestalla.

PSG down Marseille 2-1 for ninth-straight Le Classique win

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 21:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic #10 of Paris Saint-Germain is congratulated by teamamte Maxwell #17 after Ibrahimovic scored a goal in the second half against AFC Fiorentina during the International Champions Cup at Red Bull Arena on July 21, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.Paris Saint-Germain defeated ACF Fiorentina 4-2.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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France’s biggest rivalry has been quite one-sided, as Paris Saint-Germain defeated Marseille 2-1 on Sunday to take their ninth-straight Le Classique.

Marseille’s last win over PSG in Ligue 1 play was in November of 2011.

[ MORE: Juve win 14th straight ]

PSG got off to a dream start in Sunday’s Classique as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in the opening two minutes to give the Le Parisiens an early lead. It was Zlatan’s league-leading 21st goal of the season.

On loan from Newcastle, Remy Cabella equalized for Marseille in the 25th minute. Cabella scored on a brilliant individual effort, taking the ball from his own half on a solo run to the PSG box before firing a low shot into the bottom corner.

[ RELATED: Lewandowski’s agent confirms contract talks with Bayern Munich ]

However, PSG pushed on and claimed the win thanks to a 71st minute goal from Angel di Maria, who has been impressing in his first season in Paris. With eight goals and ten assists in Ligue 1 play, only Zlatan has been involved in more goals than di Maria.

Through 25 matches, PSG hold a ridiculous 24-point lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table.