Messi nets hat trick as Barcelona begins Champions League march with 4-0 win over Ajax (Video)

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Ajax may have re-established its Eredivisie dominance, as Frank de Boer has put a fresh polish on the old Ajax ways en route to three consecutive titles in the top Dutch division.

But a trip into the daunting Nou Camp, once more packed with almost 100,000 Blaugrana supporters, was too much for a young Ajax team, one once again stripped of its top talent in the annual transfer window raid on Holland’s most famous club.

Too bad, too, because this was such an intriguing matchup, one between two clubs so historically linked, and clubs that attempt to play the same way, while also remaining similarly reliant on youth development through their heralded academies. (Fox Soccer’s Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote about the close ties of today and yesterday here.)

Indeed, they may be stylistic kindred spirits, having birthed their games through some of the same tactical DNA, but Barca and Ajax are hardly playing the same game these days. (Haven’t been for a while, in fact.) Ajax players, gifted as they are, just cannot match Barca’s technical aptitude nor the collective wit – especially not when playing as the visitors in Catalonia.

Not that Ajax looked completely overwhelmed. For about 15 minutes right in the middle of Wednesday’s match, de Boer’s team created the better chances. Ricardo Van Rhijn came close on a diving header and Lerin Duarte probably could have done better with a lash from 18 yards right in the middle, both chances not long after the 30-minute mark.

In the end, Leo Messi’s fourth career hat trick help carry his Blaugrana steadily away in a 4-0 night at the Camp Nou.

New Blaugrana manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, the Argentine committed to re-establishing a Barca press that lost just a bit of its edge last year, felt comfortable enough to rest longtime Nou Camp midfield staple Xavi. Martino preferred the much younger Cesc Fabregas, knowing that Xavi, 33, will need strategic resting along the way. Indeed, Barca’s first match in tournament group play seems like a logical spot.

Barcelona did control things early, and Messi’s unstoppable free kick in the 21st minute brought the inevitable breakthrough. Neymar, along the left in Barca’s fluid 4-3-3, had been the most effective Barca man early, but it was Messi who drew the telling foul.

Later, Messi was sure to score on a 54th-minute counter attack, as Alexis Sanchez’s swell run inside freed the club’s Argentine star to waltz in along the right for a 2-0 lead. That one seemed to break the Ajax will.

It was hardly a perfect night from the Catalan giants, who lacked a certain urgency and sharpness for big stretches. Alexis and Fabregas seemed unusually subdued, Javier Mascherano was sloppy with too many of his passes from the back line and Dani Alves seemed reluctant to shoot.

In the end, goalkeeper Blaugrana ‘keeper Victor Valdes needed a big night just to keep the clean sheet.

USSF says nominations submitted for 8 president candidates

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File
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CHICAGO (AP) The U.S. Soccer Federation says it received the required three letters of nomination for eight candidates in its presidential election, one fewer than the total of people who announced their intention to run.

The USSF is conducting background checks on the candidates whose nominations were received by Tuesday night’s deadline. The governing body said the check is to ascertain that a candidate has “no conviction or no contest plea to a felony or crime of moral turpitude” and it will announce the candidate slate after completing the process.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Sunil Gulati, the USSF president since 2006, decided after the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup that he will not seek a fourth four-year term.

The nine people who announced they are running include former men’s national team players Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino; U.S. women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo; Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter; USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro; Boston lawyer Steve Gans; New York lawyer Michael Winograd; and Paul LaPointe, Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League.

The election will be held in February.

Madrid rallies to beat Al Jazira, reach Club World Cup final (video)

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Gareth Bale scored an 81st-minute winner as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Emirates club Al Jazira 2-1 on Wednesday and reach the Club World Cup final.

Madrid will try to win its third world title in four seasons when its faces South American champion Gremio on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League Weds. roundup ]

The match had two goals disallowed by video review, one for each team.

Madrid struggled early and allowed the local league winners to open the scoring with a goal by Brazilian forward Romarinho just before halftime.

But Cristiano Ronaldo equalized early in the second half and Bale netted the winner less than a minute after entering the match as a substitute for Karim Benzema.

Paul Clement admits helplessness at facing Man City

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Swansea City manager Paul Clement may have the enduring quote of the season so far when it comes to facing the behemoth that is Manchester City.

[ RECAP – City hammer Swansea ]

The suffering Swans have had their share of poor performances this season — Clement later said January transfer spending “is a must” if the club wants to stay up — but he’s throwing his hands up in the air when it comes to Wednesday’s loss at the Liberty Stadium.

The man sounds exasperated, and sorry for his team. From the BBC:

“At times it was horrible to be on the sideline watching that, seeing my side trying but suffering for long periods. They’re not the games that will decide our season but it was hard to watch at times because they were so dominant. For me, one of the best sides I’ve ever come across. So many good athletes, so many intelligent footballers and it’s really hard to pin them down. We actually had some attempts on their goal so I’m disappointed we didn’t get on the score sheet but they were a far superior side to us. We’ve got to put it aside that game. We’ve got Everton away (next) and we’ve got to try and pick something up there.”

All that’s left is for Clement to pick up a clarinet, awkwardly blow into it, then point at Pep Guardiola and say, “He’s good.”

Free message board points to the first one to name the reference.

Premier League roundup: Reds, Gunners stumble

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The Top Four looks set for tumult on a weekly basis, and this week’s seen clubs move in-and-out at the lash of a whip.

[ MORE: Atlanta acquires Nagbe ]

Tottenham’s back in. Leicester City would like to come closer.

Burnley’s out. Liverpool and Arsenal, too.

First place might be out of the question, with unbeatable looking Man City 11 points clear of the pack. But nearly everything else is in play.

Manchester United 1-0 Bournemouth — RECAP

United didn’t have it’s A-game, but that was okay thanks to fine defensive play from star backstop David De Gea and some gutsy tackles from Phil Jones. The goal came when Juan Mata‘s cross was nodded home by Romelu Lukaku in the 25th minute, and United rode that marker for all it was worth to stay three points ahead of third place Chelsea.

Swansea City 0-4 Manchester City — RECAP

How good is Man City? Pep Guardiola‘s bunch have now won a Premier League record 15-straight in a single season, and have scored 52 goals while conceding just 11. Markers 49-52 came from David Silva (two), Kevin De Bruyne, and Sergio Aguero. Tottenham is next.

Liverpool 0-0 West Bromwich Albion — RECAP

A ball bounded off Ahmed Hegazi’s body, and off Dominic Solanke‘s body and forearm to give Liverpool its presumed breakthrough, but the call was intentional handball. The Reds had myriad chances to score before that, but instead hand a point to the visiting Baggies.

Newcastle United 0-1 Everton — RECAP

Mikel Merino and Matt Ritchie both hit goal posts as Sam Allardyce‘s Everton rode its luck and a Karl Darlow spillage to a 1-0 win. Wayne Rooney poked home the rebound, and the Toffees’ relegation worries are officially a thing of the past. Newcastle? Not so much, but money’s a-coming to Rafa Benitez at St. James’ Park.

West Ham United 0-0 Arsenal — RECAP

The chances were there for dominant Arsenal, but the winning goal did not materialize at the London Stadium. Marko Arnautovic did everything but score when West Ham did manage the ball, and Javier Hernandez rattled the cage late, but David Moyes men had to settle for a well-earned point.

Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Brighton and Hove Albion — RECAP

Spurs are back in the Top Four thanks to a long Serge Aurier cross that fooled Mat Ryan and a Heung-Min Son deflection of a Christian Eriksen offering. Brighton’s just three points away from the drop zone with the loss.

Southampton 1-4 Leicester City — RECAP

Claude Puel‘s Foxes are flying, scoring goals for fun and encroaching on the Top Four after a horrible start to the Premier League season. Shinji Okazaki bagged his first Premier League brace, while Andy King and Riyad Mahrez also scored for Leicester, who is within five points of fourth and next faces Crystal Palace. Southampton’s goal came from Maya Yoshida.

STANDINGS

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Manchester City 17 16 1 0 52 11 41 7-1-0 9-0-0 49
 Manchester United 17 12 2 3 37 11 26 8-0-1 4-2-2 38
 Chelsea 17 11 2 4 31 14 17 5-1-2 6-1-2 35
 Tottenham Hotspur 17 9 4 4 30 14 16 5-3-1 4-1-3 31
 Liverpool 17 8 7 2 34 20 14 4-5-0 4-2-2 31
 Burnley 17 9 4 4 16 12 4 5-2-2 4-2-2 31
 Arsenal 17 9 3 5 30 20 10 7-0-1 2-3-4 30
 Leicester City 17 7 5 5 27 23 4 4-1-3 3-4-2 26
 Watford 17 6 4 7 26 29 -3 2-3-3 4-1-4 22
 Everton 17 6 4 7 21 29 -8 5-0-3 1-4-4 22
 Southampton 17 4 6 7 17 23 -6 3-3-4 1-3-3 18
 Huddersfield Town 17 5 3 9 12 29 -17 4-2-3 1-1-6 18
 Brighton & Hove Albion 17 4 5 8 14 23 -9 2-4-2 2-1-6 17
 Bournemouth 17 4 4 9 15 20 -5 2-2-4 2-2-5 16
 Stoke City 17 4 4 9 19 36 -17 3-2-3 1-2-6 16
 Newcastle United 17 4 3 10 16 26 -10 3-1-5 1-2-5 15
 West Bromwich Albion 17 2 8 7 12 22 -10 1-5-2 1-3-5 14

 Crystal Palace 17 3 5 9 12 28 -16 3-3-3 0-2-6 14
 West Ham United 17 3 5 9 14 32 -18 3-2-3 0-3-6 14
 Swansea City 17 3 3 11 9 22 -13 2-1-6 1-2-5 12