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.

UEL: Griezmann nabs crucial away goal vs. Arsenal, Marseille cruises

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A game of back-and-forth at the Emirates Stadium set up an enticing second leg in the UEFA Europa League semifinals, while a Ligue 1 side positioned itself well to move into the final.

[ MORE: Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks ]

Arsenal and Atletico Madrid settled for a 1-1 draw in London, as Antoine Griezmann’s late strike leveled the match for the Spanish side.

The Gunners looked on their way to a victory when Alexandre Lacazette‘s goal just beyond the hour mark put Arsene Wenger‘s men in front.

The result sets up a strong showdown for the two giants in a week’s time, although Arsenal will feel it left something on the table after racking up 26 shots (seven on target) on the day, particularly after Sime Vrsaljko was sent off after 10 minutes for the visitors when he picked up a second yellow card.

Meanwhile, Florian Thauvin and Clinton Njie gave Marseille a 2-0 win over Red Bull Leipzig, giving the French side the edge it sought out ahead of the competition finale.

The two clubs will meet again at Red Bull Arena Salzburg for the second leg.


Arsenal 1-1 Atletico Madrid
Marseille 2-0 Red Bull Salzburg

Europa League, LIVE: Arsenal, Marseille host first legs

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Diego Costa brings a solid career record against Arsenal back to London in a bid to ruin Arsene Wenger‘s farewell season at the Emirates Stadium.

[ FOLLOW: Arsenal vs. Atleti ]

The now-Atletico Madrid forward returns to England on Thursday as his La Liga outfit aims to stop Arsenal from reaching next month’s Europa League Final in Lyon.

[ FOLLOW: Marseille vs. Red Bull Salzburg ]

That’s a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff, the same as Marseille’s date with Red Bull Salzburg in France.

ARSENAL-ATLETICO MADRID LINEUPS

Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Wilshere, Ramsey, Welbeck, Ozil, Lacazette. Subs: Cech, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Chambers, Kolasinac, Iwobi, Nketiah.

Atleti: Oblak, Lucas, Godin, Gimenez, Vrsaljko, Saul, Thomas, Koke, Correa, Griezmann, Gameiro. Subs: Werner, Savic, Gabi, Vitolo, Olabe, Torres, Costa.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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It is that time of the week again, folks. Prediction time!

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

[ STREAM: Premier League “Goal Rush” ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

West Ham 0-3 Man City – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Tottenham 4-0 Watford – (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM ]

Swansea City 0-2 Chelsea – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Man United 3-1 Arsenal – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Newcastle 1-1 West Brom – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Huddersfield 1-2 Everton- (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-0 Brighton – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 2-1 Stoke City – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

 


Southampton 2-1 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Crystal Palace 2-0 Leicester City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]

Chivas’ Almeyda exhales after CCL win: “I finished last season with five ulcers”

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Matias Almeyda’s body didn’t need the intensity of penalty kicks, though he’ll gladly accept the outcome after Chivas Guadalajara clinched a Club World Cup berth by beating Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League final.

“I finished last season with five ulcers,” Almeyda told ESPN’s Tom Marshall, noting his grandmother is ill as well.

Chivas reached a pair of finals before this tournament, and had a number of other obstacles including protests of the club’s owners and disappointment in player recruitment.

[ MORE: TFC’s “heart has been ripped from chest” ]

Still, the long-haired Argentine put together a winning CCL team. The former River Plate and Banfield manager spent most of his playing career in Spain, Italy, and Argentina, and is happy to pick up a big win in a new(ish) country.

“It’s beautiful. When I gave my first press conference I was unknown in Mexico and it wasn’t easy,” Almeyda said. “I spoke that day about what I wanted to achieve here and God has helped me achieve what I promised.”

The 44-year-old won Serie A as a player with Lazio, and has two Copa MX and a Liga MX title to go with his CCL crown. He’s a name to watch moving forward, and — as the kids say, don’t at me — a sneaky interesting name for the USMNT given his ability to marshal an undermanned unit.