AC Milan, FC Barcelona play to 1-1 Champions League draw at the San Siro

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When Champions League group stage is said and done in December, both Barcelona and AC Milan seem likely to find their way into the tournament’s elimination rounds.

But that doesn’t make the latest meeting of these European giants any less interesting. (And these sides do seem to be in UEFA opposition quite often, don’t they? This was their seventh meeting in recent seasons.)

Both teams remain unbeaten in Group H after their 1-1 draw Tuesday at the San Siro.

Leo Messi was back on the field after his recent injury struggles, but talented Milan troublemaker Mario Balotelli was on the bench to start this at the fabled San Siro. Never mind that for the Italians, who spent the early minutes Tuesday looking like a better version of the club that has struggled to impress this year in Serie A.

They looked dangerous early, and what a big mess Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano made in dealing with one rather benign, bouncing ball into their half, both players failing to communicate or take charge. (Carles Puyol, just cleared to play, can’t get back quickly enough for the Blaugrana.)

From there, Barcelona’s scrambling center backs were in big trouble as Kaka and Robinho went quickly to work, keeping ahead of the desperately pursuing pair of Barca defenders and tucking away a deserved 1-0 lead after just seven minutes. Robinho had the goal.

Milan blew it similarly in the 24th minute as Cristian Zapata fumbled away possession in midfield. Andres Iniesta pounced as ferociously and effectively as we should expect from the exceptional Spanish world champion, quickly finding the peerless Messi along the right. Once Milan’s Zapata had lost the ball, so quick was Barca’s movement forward and the telling pass into Messi, the world’s best player was left unmarked, utterly alone to sweep in on goal.

Messi seemed almost to lose the opportunity as he moved quickly in on goal, but then gained his balance just enough to record his personal Champions League goal No. 63, one closer in his pursuit of Raul’s all-time tournament record.

Still, Messi was far from his best; the Argentinian striker is had played just 20 minutes (just last weekend) since sustaining a September thigh injury sustained against Almeria. So those signature Messi bursts arrived only on occasion, unfortunate for the visitors, who would surely have liked to have tested young Milan backup goalkeeper Marco Amelia.

The second half was lots of Barca possession with just a scattering of chances on either side. Messi’s pass into the galloping Adriano gave Barca the best of three good chances after the break.

Milan’s best chance after the break: Robinho’s curious decision to let a ball roll through the penalty area (Or did he badly misplay a centering pass?) robbed the home side of a potential go-ahead goal in the 51st minute.

(At least we noticed Robinho. The other famous Brazilian in this one, Barca’s recently arrived Neymar, still hunting his debut Champions League goal, was seldom heard from Tuesday at the San Siro.)

Otherwise, Milan’s attack went meek. Mario Balotelli’s 65th minute introduction did add just a smidge of punch, but only briefly. In fact, all of Barca’s possession quieted the crowd and left the San Siro in an odd hush for most of the second half.

Tuesday’s lineups:

AC MILAN: Marco Amelia; Ignazio Abate, Cristián Zapata, Philippe Mexès, Kévin Constant; Nigel de Jong, Sulley Muntari, Riccardo Montolivo; Valter Birsa, Robinho, Kaká

Substitutes: Ferdinando Coppola, Matías Silvestre, Andrea Poli, Antonio Nocerino, Urby Emanuelson, Alessandro Matri, Mario Balotelli

FC BARCELONA: Victor Valdés; Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta; Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi, Neymar.

Substitutes: Jose Manuel Pinto, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Cristian Tello

Preview: Everton v. Newcastle

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  • Everton have won seven of their last eight games v Newcastle
  • Newcastle have won four PL games in a row
  • Wayne Rooney has more goals (15) against Newcastle than any other PL team

Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both setting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

The Toffees sit in ninth, with Newcastle in 10th and just one point behind Everton with a game in hand. Rafael Benitez has been lauded for taking his newly-promoted side into the top 10 with defensive solidity, while Sam Allardyce has been lambasted for a defensive style of play despite getting Everton out of a relegation fight following his appointment back in November.

In team news Everton have Mason Holgate and Gylfi Sigurdsson out injured, while Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu but Islam Slimani could make his first start.


What they’re saying 

Sam Allardyce on the job Rafael Benitez has done at Newcastle: “From a difficult period they have managed to recover and get in the Premier League and they have turned it around. They have put together a run of games and we’ll see a better Newcastle than we saw up there [when Everton won 1-0 in December]. Rafa has progressed very well. He has always expressed his disappointment with not enough funds – we can all say we don’t have enough funds. What he has managed with the funds he has, particularly in the January months, has been excellent.”

Rafael Benitez on his Newcastle future: “I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time. I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.”

Prediction
Two teams who are very similar in terms of their style of play should see a bit of a stalemate take place at Goodison. 1-1 draw, which is a much better result for Newcastle and will pile more pressure on Big Sam.

Paul Pogba: “Transfers are not in my head”

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Paul Pogba has been discussing his future at Manchester United beyond this season.

The Frenchman delivered a stunning assist in United’s 2-1 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, with the midfielder now named Man of the Match in each of his last two games after plenty of speculation about his future at United in recent months.

Jose Mourinho left Pogba out of his starting lineup on multiple occasions, while Pep Guardiola claims he was offered to buy Pogba in January and speculation about him joining Paris Saint-Germain, going back to Juventus or heading to Real Madrid continue.

Speaking to French outlet Canal Football Club, Pogba had the following to say about his own future.

“Right now, I am at Manchester United and I am honestly only thinking about the present. Transfers are not in my head. We are in the [FA] Cup final and the World Cup is around the corner,” Pogba said.

Pogba also addressed the rumors regarding his relationship with Mourinho with reports stating that the duo do not get along and United’s manager is fed up with the Frenchman’s attitude off the pitch.

“I don’t have a problem with him, and I don’t think he has a problem with me,” Pogba said. “He’s the coach and he has to make choices. I am a player and I accept them. I have to answer on the pitch.”

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United