Gareth Bale vs. Neymar: New boys highlight El Clasico between Real Madrid, Barcelona

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On Saturday evening in Barcelona, arguably the greatest rivalry in world soccer kicks off for yet another season.

This year, there are plenty of new faces involved in the game known across the globe as ‘El Clasico’ but two new names in particular are set to get the crowds going at the Nou Camp: Neymar and Gareth Bale.

Signing for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively over the summer, both attackers will get their first taste of El Clasico in a stadium packed with almost 100,000 spectators in a fiery and rambunctious derby. The old rivalry is deep-rooted with political agendas, as Catalonia and the rest of Spain, especially Madrid, ‘don’t get along’ to put in nicely.

Brazilian born Neymar and Welshman Bale will be be thrown into the intimidating atmosphere, and it’s sink or swim times for these boys. Both have the faith and trust of their managers, as Madrid’s new boss Carlo Ancelotti confirmed Bale is ready to start, while Barca’s new manager Gerardo Martino has praised Neymar for his performances and wants the winger protected against heavy tackles from Real.

(MORE: Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo – Battle for Ballon D’Or in El Clasico)

Both Ancelloti and Martino will be tasting El Clasico for the first-time in their managerial careers, and both managers will hope their superstar wingers can provide that extra spark to get them the win.

source: AP
Neymar has had a solid start to his Barca career.

World record signing Bale, who signed for Real from Tottenham Hotspur for $132 million, is expected to start for the first time since his Real debut back in September as he continues to recover from a thigh injury. The 24-year-old winger has made a slow start to his Madrid career, and has the chance to become an instant Madrid hero if he can produce the goods in El Clasico on a steamy Saturday evening on the Mediterranean.

Bale has so far played five times for Madrid, amassing just 172 minutes in the glistening white uniform of Real and scoring just once on his debut against Villarreal. The Welshman hasn’t added any assists, and with injuries and lack of fitness hampering his career at Madrid so far, Bale will be hoping he can come out firing on all cylinders when he ascends from the dressing room below to the pitch above and into the thunderous atmosphere that’s sure to await.

As for Neymar, Barca’s 21-year-old Brazilian wonder-boy has dazzled on occasions so far and has looked worth every penny of the $72 million Barcelona paid Santos to bring him to Europe. After 13 games for his new club, Neymar has logged 928 minutes of playing time, scored three goals and added six assists. I’d say that’s a pretty satisfactory start to his Barca career.

However, average doesn’t cut at the Camp Nou, and whoever turns into the match-winner, Bale or Neymar, on Saturday can surely hold the mantle of being the best summer-signing. This game is crucial as Barca sit top of the table with 25 points from nine games, while Real are just three points behind in third.

Early season impetus is on the line as these arch nemesis’ square off for the 167th time, with Madrid holding a slender advantage with 70 wins to Barca’s 62.

These are the games that count.

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If the youngsters fail to deliver, Messi and Ronaldo will show them how it’s done.

If Bale returns from injury and does the business, Madrid fans will forget all about his first few months on the treatment table, while Neymar can elevate his status ahead of Bale further if he puts in a dominant display.

Let’s not forget, these two youngsters are playing second-fiddle to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi will play after returning from injury, as he scored the equalizer in Barca’s 1-1 Champions League draw away at AC Milan in midweek. As for Ronaldo, he just keeps scoring and may threaten Messi’s attempts to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award for the fifth time running.

So, if Neymar and Bale don’t get the job done, it’s likely the senior dream team of Messi and Ronaldo will step in to show them how it’s done.

You can watch El Clasico live on BeIN Sport at 12pm ET on Saturday.

Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.