Spain Soccer Champions League

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: 

Premier League Preview: Stoke City vs. Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Paul Pogba of Manchester United (L) shoots while Erik Pieters of Stoke City (R) attempts to block the shot during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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  • Man Utd leads all-time 43W-34D-28L
  • Clubs even in last six (2-2-2)
  • Red Devils unbeaten in 16
  • Stoke winners of two-straight

After wins over Sunderland and Watford, Stoke City gets a higher class of opponent on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium (Watch live at 10 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Fortunately for Stoke, it’s had some success against Manchester United in recent years.

Stoke and United drew 1-1 at Old Trafford on Oct. 2, though Jose Mourinho’s Red Devils are flying now. United is hard to break down, and arguably deserved better than the 1-1 draw it earned versus Liverpool last weekend.

Stoke is now 11 points clear of the drop zone, and a win could raise its status to closer to the Top Five than Bottom Three. United, meanwhile, wants three points that would move it to precipice of the Top Four.

 

What they’re saying

Stoke City’s Glenn Whelan on facing United“There has been a wind of change there and the supporters seem a lot happier now and you get the sense that they are together as a group now. You only have to look at the players within the squad, and even the ones who are leaving, to see how much strength in depth they have there.”

Jose Mourinho praises newly-extended Antonio Valencia“I don’t think it is a reward, I don’t see it in this perspective. I just think he is the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football. It is just for us to keep the best. I don’t think it is a reward. It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man.”

Prediction

United gets it done, only barely. Stoke will put up a brave battle for boss Mark Hughes, but there are too many weapons to suppress. United, 1-0.

AFCON wrap: Results keep Group C undecided

Ivory Coast's Wilfried Bony controls the ball on his head during their training session at the Stade Akoakam, Oyem, Gabon, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, ahead of their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match against Congo. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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Like Group A, Group C in the Africa Cup of Nations has very little decided ahead of the final group stage match.

[ MORE: Guardiola “said goodbye to title” ]

Ivory Coast 2-2 DR Congo

A thrilling first half had DR Congo leading 1-0 and 2-1, with only Wilfried Bony netting for the Ivory Coast. Les Elephants grabbed a draw through Serey Die’s 67th minute goal.

DR Congo now leads the group and is primed to advance with a result against Togo or a Morocco loss or draw against Ivory Coast.

Morocco 3-1 Togo

Mathieu Dossevi gave Togo a surprise fifth minute lead lead, but Aziz Bouhaddouz kickstarted the Moroccan attack to plug the victors into Group C’s second spot ahead of a Jan. 24 showdown with Ivory Coast.

Saturday’s matches

Ghana vs. Mali — 11 a.m. ET
Egypt vs. Uganda — 2 p.m. ET

Premier League Preview: Liverpool vs. Swansea City

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images
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  • Liverpool leads all-time 22W-8D-10L
  • Swans lost five-straight at Anfield
  • Reds unbeaten in 7 PL matches

One of the Premier League’s top attacks hosts the division’s leakiest defense, as Liverpool may be licking its chops ahead of a visit from struggling Swansea City on Saturday (Watch live at 7:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Liverpool has drawn at Sunderland and Manchester United in its last two Premier League outings, and sits seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

Swansea City has allowed multiple goals in five of six PL matches since beating Sunderland 3-0 on Dec. 10. It’s no surprise that they’ve lost those five (the sixth being a 2-1 win at struggling Crystal Palace).

What they’re saying

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp on the match“We’re really looking forward to this game. I don’t know when it happened but in England every game now is like a final. Swansea are trying to survive. I don’t know when the title run-in will start, maybe now and we’re in the race. I hope for a special atmosphere tomorrow.”

Swansea City back Federico Fernandez on Liverpool“They are a team that is very strong going forward and that is shown by the number of goals they have scored. If you lose a little bit of focus against these teams then they have the players that will punish you every time. But it’s not only defending strongly when they are attacking, it is also how we keep hold of the ball and how we use it when in possession.”

Prediction

Swansea boss Paul Clement has his hands full, and is grabbing reinforcements in the transfer window (Luciano Narsingh, Martin Olsson, Tom Carroll). That won’t be enough to handle what Liverpool will dish out Saturday, as the Reds break free with a 3-0 win.

Saints’ Fonte moves to West Ham for $10 million

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West Ham has been linked with big name strikers since the summer, but the Irons’ big January transfer to date is a center back.

EURO champion and Southampton mainstay Jose Fonte is moving to London.

[ MORE: West Brom finally sells Berahino ]

Fonte, 33, makes an approximately $10 million move from the South Coast, where the Portuguese back will better Slaven Bilic‘s back line while forcing Southampton to find an answer alongside Virgil Van Dijk.

It’s been a strange trip to London for Fonte and Southampton, detailed by our own Joe Prince-Wright here. Fonte joined Saints during the 2009-10 season, and became a cult hero at St. Mary’s in helping the club move from League One to the Europa League in just over a half-decade.

Something won’t feel right about seeing Fonte in claret and blue, and Saints host West Ham on Feb. 4. Should be quite interesting.