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Lionel Messi double leads Barcelona past Milan in UEFA Champions League

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Four games scoreless led to jokes that Lionel Messi had forgotten how to score, and while those observations were tongue-in-cheek, Messi still quieted on Wednesday. A first half score from the spot and an insurance tally late gave the Argentine star his first two goals of the competition, helping Barcelona to a 3-1 win over Milan at the Nou Camp.

Sergio Busquets doubled Barcelona’s lead in the 39th minute before a Gerard Piqué own goal pulled Milan within one at halftime. The home side’s stifling possession game, however, limited the Rossoneri to one shot on goal, with a 92 percent pass completion rate ensuring Milan would rarely see the ball.

The victory moves Barcelona to 10 points in Group H, five ahead of second place Milan. They can clinch first place with a win next match day at Ajax (Nov. 26). That result combined with a Milan win at Celtic would also put the Italians into the knockout round.

As characteristic of the teams’ three other meetings this year, Barcelona dictated the game, but whereas Milan often starts applying pressure at the edge of their defensive third, today they quickly regressed much deeper. With a defense setting up just inside the penalty box behind midfielders holding their ground at the arc, the visitors were providing little resistance for Barcelona’s midfield.

When they did create turnovers, Milan would quickly move down their left, through the place vacated by Dani Alves. The tactic would come good near halftime, but over the first 45 minutes, its main virtues were wasting time, giving their defense some rest, and allowing their lines to reset.

In the 30th minute, though, that deep block cost them, if controversially so. Barcelona’s midfield saw no pressure before lofting a ball behind the defense for Neymar. Cutting in from the left, the Brazilian attacker tried to get inside right back Ignazio Abate for his chance but was eventually ridden to ground. The 50-50 call went against Milan when referee Milorad Mazic pointed to the spot, setting up Messi to end his scoreless run.

Six minutes later, Barcelona fans were treated to a rare set piece goal, with a Xavi Hernandez inswinger from the right finding an unmarked Sergio Busquets eight yards out. The midfielder’s glancing header beat Christian Abbiati for what would become the game-winning goal.

Milan pulled one back before half time, again attacking down the left flank. Just before the byline, Kaká tried to send a ball into the six-yard box, but an attempted block from Gerard Piqué deflected the pass into his own net, Victór Valdés jumping away from goal trying to play the cross that never came. Milan went into halftime down one.

In an often dull second half, Barcelona chose patience over pursuit, keeping the ball high while daring Milan to chose their one-goal deficit.

Eventually, Milan’s defense broke down. In the 83rd minute, Messi was allowed to play a one-two with Cesc Fábregas at the edge of the Milan area. Chipping over Abbiati as the Milan keeper came to challenge, Messi converted for his day’s second goal, giving Barcelona a 3-1 win.

It was a typical Barcelona performance, one that ended in a predictable win, but the news was not all bad for Milan. Thanks to Ajax’s win in Amsterdam over Celtic, the Rossoneri maintained second place in Group H, staying one-point clear of the Dutch champions. Win their next two, and Milan’s still going into the knockout round.

Scoring

Barcelona: 30′ (p.k.), 83′, Lionel Messi, 36′ Sergio Busquets

Milan: 45′ Piqué (o.g.)

Lineups

Barcelona: Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergio Buquest, Xavi Hernández (88′ Alex Song), Andrés Iniesta (78′ Cesc Fábregas); Alexei Sánchez, Lionel Messi, Neymar (85′ Pedro)

Unused subs: Marc Martra, Pinto, Cristian Tello, Martín Montoya

Milan: Christian Abbiati; Ignzaio Abte, Cristian Zapata, Philippe Mexes, Urby Emanuelson; Andrea Poli (74′ Valter Birsa), Nigel de Jong, Ricardo Montovilo, Sulley Muntari; Kaká (84′ Alessandro Matri); Robinho (45′ Mario Balotelli)

Unused subs: 

Leicester fan will win $50,000 from $10 bet if Foxes win Premier League

Leicester’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring against Manchester United, his eleventh consecutive goal in the Premier League, during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Manchester United at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Vardy becomes the first man to score in 11 consecutive English Premier League soccer matches after finding the back of the net against Manchester United today.(AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
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As their odds of winning the Premier League title continue to be slashed, tales of Leicester City fans set to win an incredible amount of cash continue.

The latest story is a beauty.

[ VIDEO: Ferrell – “I got Mourinho fired” ]

On the eve of the 2015-16 Premier League season one Leicester City fan, Chloe Cope, decided to put $10 on her side to win the title. The odds were 5,000 -1. So, with the Foxes five points clear at the top of the table with just 13 games to go, the first league title in Leicester’s 132 year history would not only bring unbeliavable amounts of jubilation to the East Midlands city but also plenty of cash for its fans. $50,000 for this Miss Cope, in fact.

The story gets even better. Check this out.

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Miss Cope’s flutter on her beloved Foxes was actually her first-ever bet. She opened up an online betting account last summer in the UK with Sky Bet and was rewarded a free $30 bet which she used to make a bet that Leicester would finish in the top six this season. That’s virtually assured so she will win another $637.

The two bets she made back on August 7 2015 are shown in the Tweet below via Jacqui Oatley.

A few other Leicester fans are also in line to win plenty of cash, but this one seems to have the most riding on it.

Will big changes in Europe threaten UEFA Champions League’s future?

FC Barcelona, 2014-15 UEFA Champions League winners
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With talk of the UEFA Champions League being threatened by a “super league” of some sort, that notion has been undermined by some of Europe’s top teams.

For now.

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On Wednesday in Paris the European Clubs’ Association (ECA) met at its 16th annual congress and confirmed it will seek to change the way the UEFA Champions League and Europa League is run when the current term of agreement cycle expires at the end of the 2017-18 season.

With over 200 member clubs the ECA represents many of the biggest teams on the planet with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Chelsea all included.

In the past there has been a growing notion for a European “super league” to replace the Champions League and that perennial European giants should not have to rely on qualifying for Europe via their domestic competitions.

That is one of the factors currently being discussed by the ECA, as they released the following statement after the congress in France this week.

“In light of the upcoming 2018-21 UEFA Club Competition Cycle, the clubs are currently discussing the future of UEFA’s main club competitions, namely the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. As in the past, the clubs are in constant dialogue with UEFA to further develop and improve both competitions. All ECA Member Clubs have gathered in informal working groups to exchange initial thoughts and ideas.”

[ MORE: Reports claim Mourinho to United is “done deal”

The current ECA chairman and chairman of Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, also spoke about the need to revamp both club competitions.

“I believe both ECA and UEFA are interested in an evolution of the competitions. Stagnation means regression,” Rummenigge said. “We have always jointly looked into ways to further develop and improve the competitions. It is important to find a good and balanced solution for everyone involved.”

So, overall, it seems that for now both ECA and UEFA is willing to work together to improve the current format of the UCL rather than go their separate ways and the ECA member clubs beginning their own competition, as had been mooted by Rummenigge and other high-ranking officials in the past.

What changes could be discussed for the 2018-21 UEFA Club Competition Cycle?

For me, it seems like it would be a good idea to somehow reduce the number of UCL teams who enter the group stage. That would help it preserve its elite status and potential shave two matchdays off the schedule to lessen the pressure on teams. Currently 32 teams qualify in eight groups of four teams and a total of 78 teams from across UEFA’s 54 member nations qualify for the UCL each season. 46 fall by the wayside in the qualifying rounds and many of those teams are too small to ever dream about getting anywhere near the group stages.

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Perhaps just having one playoff round to make the UCL and limiting the number of spots for nations with lower UEFA coefficients is the way to go. That way those nations would back their teams competing in the Europa League and that competition will gain more prestige as a direct correlation between teams performing well in the Europa League will lead to certain nations being granted places in the UEFA Champions League. That’s the case now, but adding extra emphasis to the Europa League should be a big part of the next cycle.

The biggest situation the ECA seem to want to sort out here is how some of Europe’s biggest teams did not qualify for the UCL. The overriding notion seems to be that the ECA wants them to qualify each year. Even though the likes of past UCL winners Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund weren’t involved in Europe’s elite competition this season, did the tournament really suffer because of it? In terms of gate revenue, perhaps, but it seems that the ECA is conflicted about the best way to get as many of its member teams involved in the elite competition as possible.

Another idea I’m just throwing out there could be to hand teams a spot in the UCL based on their current coefficient which takes into account their previous performances in UEFA Club Competitions. Perhaps four spots per season could be reserved for teams who don’t qualify for the UCL domestically, but have the highest coefficient of the non qualifiers. Just a thought.

There’s clearly plenty to sort out but it seems like — for now, at least — we haven’t seen the end of the UEFA Champions League. But tweaks will need to be made to stop it regressing.

VIDEO: Will Ferrell is feeling guilty – “I got Jose Mourinho fired”

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Sometimes there’s just something you have to admit.

[ MORE: Mourinho to United “done deal”

It sounds better if you say it out loud and get it off your chest. This is one of those moments for comedian, actor and now part-owner of a Major League Soccer franchise, Los Angeles FC, Will Ferrell.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Joining the Men In Blazers this week the self-proclaimed soccer nut joked that he was the one who actually got Jose Mourinho fired by Chelsea.

For real. Watch the video above to see Ferrell’s admission as he explains exactly what happened.

[ MORE: Arsenal, Spurs to fight for the PL title? ]

Just seven months after leading Chelsea to the Premier League title, Mourinho was dismissed by the west London club in December.

NOTE: Severe tongue-in-cheek mode activated.

WATCH: NBC to stream USWNT, every CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying game

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The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championships kick off on Wednesday and NBC Sports will be streaming all 15 games of the tournament over the next 11 days.

Every single game will be streamed live online or on the app via NBC Sports Live Extra, in addition to up to four matches airing on NBCSN with the U.S women’s national team — aiming for a fourth-straight Olympic gold — featuring heavily in live broadcasts.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The eight-team tournament takes place from Feb. 10-21 in Houston and Frisco, Texas, with the top two teams advancing to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Below is a full schedule of the games.

2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship Schedule

Frisco, Texas – Toyota Stadium
Houston, Texas – BBVA Compass Stadium
Times U.S. Central (U.S. Eastern in parentheses)

FIRST ROUND
Group A: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica
Group B: Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana

Wednesday, Feb. 10 (Frisco)
Puerto Rico vs. Mexico                                   5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Costa Rica                                    7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Thursday, Feb. 11 (Houston)
Guatemala vs. Trinidad & Tobago                  5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guyana                                           7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

Saturday, Feb. 13 (Frisco)
Costa Rica vs. Puerto Rico                              12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
USA vs. Mexico                                                 3 p.m. (4 p.m.) NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. ET

Sunday, Feb. 14 (Houston)
Guyana vs. Guatemala                                     12:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.)
Trinidad vs. Canada                                          3 p.m. (4 p.m.)

Monday, Feb. 15 (Frisco)
Mexico vs. Costa Rica                                       5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
USA vs. Puerto Rico                                          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) LIVE on NBCSN

Tuesday, Feb. 16 (Houston)
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana                         5 p.m. (6 p.m.)
Canada vs. Guatemala                                      7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.)

SEMIFINALS

Friday, Feb. 19 (Houston)
Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up          4:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m.) ***
Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up          7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.) ***

FINAL

Sunday, Feb. 21 (Houston)
Semifinal winners                                            4 p.m. (5 p.m.) NBCSN at 11 p.m.

***USA’s semifinal, should the USA advance, will air LIVE on NBCSN