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Three swoops for Dynamo Kyiv help close the gap with Shakhtar Donetsk

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Dynamo Kyiv, one of the two traditional powers in Ukraine, seemed to have other things to worry about than Shakhtar this summer. While the Donetsk club were making waves in last year’s Champions League and winning their league by 13 points (losing only once in 30 games), Dynamo was fighting emerging challengers Metalist Kharkiv and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk for second place. Ultimately, Myron Markevych’s Metalist claimed the league’s second Champions League spot, relegating Dynamo to the relative indignity of Europa League.

I say relative indignity because while European soccer has its own charms, it’s not where Dynamo’s supposed to be. At least, it’s not where they’re supposed to be at the beginning of a campaign. They’re one of Ukraine’s big two. One of those Champions League spots should be theirs on renown alone. It’s bad enough that they’d become a notable second behind Shakhtar, but to be passed by Metalist? And have Dnipro on their heels? It’s a concerning if subtle fall.

Dynamo clearly realize their plight and are solving it the way all club soccer troubles are solved: With money and new players. With three swoops, Dynamo have not only started to address the growing talent gap between themselves and their rivals, they’ve also lured three talents who had been linked with bigger leagues.

The most renown of the trio is Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda (pictured), a 23-year-old Moroccan attacking midfielder who had been linked with moves to England, Italy and Turkey. The specOne of the best players on the MHSC team that claimed Ligue 1 in 2011-12, Belhanda has been linked with higher profile moves for the last six months. That he ended up in Kyiv (for a speculated $13/€10 million) is a minor coup for Dynamo.

So is the capture of 27-year-old Dieumerci Mbokani, a DR Congo striker who scored 34 goals in 53 league games during his two years at Anderlecht. Thought Mbokani struggled during spells at Monaco and Wolfsburg, he has improved since his 2011 return to the Juliper League, where he’d previously stared for Standard Liege. That improvement, also seen for a DR Congo side the qualified for the last Cup of Nations, will complement Brown Ideye and Belhanda in Dynamo’s attack, albeit for another $13 million.

But that attack will feature a third surprising addition, that of 25-year-old Dutch winger Jeremain Lens, who agreed with Dynamo two weeks ago. The former PSV man makes the move to Ukraine after his most productive season in the Eredivisie, scoring 15 goals in 30 league games, production that made for another $13 million fee, according to reports. Where most Dutch league stars with that kind of production make their way to Germany or England, Lens has instead been lured to Kyiv, rounding out an attack that may more than rival Shakhtar’s.

The defending champions will line up with Luiz Adriano up top, some trio pulled out of their grab bag of Brazilian attacking midfielders: Alex Teixeira, Ilsinho, Douglas Costa, Taison, Wellington Nem, Fred, and Alan Patrick behind. With Henrik Mkhitaryan (and Fernandinho, deeper in midfield) all but gone, Mirseau Lucescu will have to adjust. What that adjustment looks like, it’s too early to say.

That adjustment could be brilliant, given all the talent Lucescu has at his disposal. But with Razvan Rat also gone (having left for West Ham United), this can be seem as a minor regroup for Ukraine’s champions. And if that’s the case. Dynamo’s attack of Lens, Mbokani, and Ideye being supported by Belhanda may make up that gap.

It will be fun if Metalist and Dnipro can somehow keep up. Even if they don’t, this year’s Ukrainian Premier League looks to be more interesting than last’s.

Report: Chelsea’s Diego Costa, Antonio Conte agree truce

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates victory with Diego Costa after the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea at Riverside Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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The feud is over. For now.

[ MORE: New rules stop Costa move

After Diego Costa was left out of Chelsea’s traveling squad for the win at Leicester City last weekend, he has been training on his own amid reports of a back injury which his manager Antonio Conte

It seems very likely that this situation was about much more than a back injury as Costa and Conte reportedly had a bust-up on the training ground, while links surrounding a big-money move to China continue as Costa’s agent, Jorge Mendes, was seen visiting owners of Chinese Super League clubs last week.

A report in The Times states that Costa and Conte have decided to put their differences aside and the Spanish international is back in contention to start against Hull City on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

It was also stated that although everyone is buddy-buddy for now, Costa could still leave in the summer as his volatile nature is far from impressing Conte who continues to stamp his authority not only on the players but the entire club.

It’s clear Conte is boss but he can’t have Costa undermining him as seems to have been the case over the past week and it was also the case earlier on in the season when Conte demanded Costa remained on the pitch.

That said, Costa’s importance to Chelsea can’t be understated as he is the join-top goalscorer in the Premier League with 14 goals and he’s added another five assists this season. With reports linking Chelsea with a summer move for Alvaro Morata, it appears Conte is already trying to plan for life without Costa.

Can the Blues win the PL title this season without Costa’s goal and presence up top? Despite a seven-point lead, probably not. That’s why Conte calling a truce in his instance makes sense.

That said, he now has six months or so to line up a long-term replacement for Costa.

The cracks have been papered over for now. But how long will it be until two fiery characters collide once again?

Lionel Messi discusses his Barcelona future

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 11:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the Copa del Rey round of 16 second leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at Camp Nou on January 11, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi has addressed speculation linking him with a move away from the only club he has ever known.

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Messi, 29, has been at Barcelona since the age of 13 and the Argentine superstar has won every possible trophy with the Catalan giants, plus has been crowned the World Player of the Year on five occasions.

Time for a new challenge?

Reports had suggested that Barcelona have wanted to start talks over a new contract with Messi for quite some time but with just 18 months left on his current deal, Messi and his representatives are yet to hold talks.

“I have always said that Barcelona has given me everything and I am here for as long as they want me to be,” Messi said in Coach magazine.

Hmm.

Messi also spoke about his former manager and mentor, Pep Guardiola, and his challenging start to life in the Premier League as manager of Manchester City.

“It is a very competitive league, last season showed that, so it makes it very difficult to predict,” Messi added. “Of course Pep is a very successful coach, he will be adjusting to the league, but I am sure that he will be successful.”

Will Messi be part of Pep’s success at City?

It is obvious Barca will want him to stay but if a huge offer comes in for Messi from Man City this summer, or others in the Premier League, then surely he will think twice about it.

If Pep can coax Messi to join him at City, who can clearly afford him, then it would be another glittering star in their attacking line. That said, if Guardiola is going to be successful then he’ll have to add plenty more quality in defense as City currently sit 10 points off leaders Chelsea with 17 games to go in the PL season.

Loss to Sevilla quickly puts Real Madrid’s Zidane on the defensive

SEVILLE, SPAIN - JANUARY 15:  Head Coach of Real Madrid CF Zinedine Zidane looks on prior to  the match against Real Madrid CF during the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Real Madrid CF at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on January 15, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid’s first loss after a 40-game unbeaten streak was enough to put coach Zinedine Zidane on the defensive.

Two days after Madrid’s unbeaten record was halted by a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in the Spanish league, Zidane was forced to defend some of his players against criticism from fans and local media.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

Most comments were aimed at goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who failed to stop Sevilla’s injury-time winner on Sunday. Navas got to Stevan Jovetic‘s long-range shot but was unable to keep the ball from going in.

“He’s having a really good season,” Zidane said on Tuesday. “You can always ask for more, but if up until now we had gone 40 games without losing, it’s for a reason, and he has been there all the way.”

There have been calls for Zidane to give reserve goalkeeper Kiko Casilla a chance, but the coach said there was “no need to go over this again.”

Zidane also dismissed talk about signing a new goalkeeper.

“These are rumors,” he said. “We are focused on what we are doing this year. Whatever happens next I’m not interested and it’s not the time to talk about it. The three goalkeepers we have are important, they’re doing well and I’m very happy with them. I don’t want to change anything we’re doing.”

[ MORE: How Sevilla hope to break up the Madrid-Barca duopoly ]

Zidane defended forward Karim Benzema, who lost possession near midfield in a mistake that led to host Sevilla’s winner on Sunday.

“Everyone can say and write what they want,” Zidane said. “On a field, playing 90 minutes, you can’t do everything right. There is talk of lack of concentration, but we only had five bad minutes and that happens in football.”

Benzema also missed a chance to score from close range in the game, but a few days earlier it was the French striker who netted in stoppage time in a Copa del Rey match against Sevilla to help Madrid set the Spanish unbeaten record.

Zidane downplayed the end of Madrid’s unbeaten streak. The club hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat at Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

“These things happen,” he said. “Nothing is going to change in what I’m going to do. Those who are not Real Madrid fans will want us to lose, but we must be ready and think that what we’re doing is fine. We lost a game, something that happens, and now we have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Madrid hosts Celta Vigo on Wednesday in a first-leg match in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

Celta has won all four matches this year.

“I am not surprised by Celta’s record because they’re a very good team, they fight and play very good football,” Zidane said. “It’ll be another complicated match for us.”

FA fines Man City’s Sagna over “10 against 12” Instagram message

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Scott Arfield of Burnley (L) tackles Bacary Sagna of Manchester City (R) during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Burnley at Etihad Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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LONDON (AP) The English Football Association has fined Manchester City defender Bacary Sagna 40,000 pounds (around $50,000) for an Instagram post about a referee.

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Sagna posted a photo with the caption “10 against 12.. but still fighting and winning as a team” on the social network site following City’s 2-1 win against Burnley on Jan. 2.

Sagna later amended the post to read “still fighting and winning as a team” after a match that saw referee Lee Mason send off midfielder Fernandinho.

[ MORE: Klopp, Liverpool still consulting lawyers over absurd Matip situation ]

The FA also warned Sagna about his future conduct.