Netherlands Soccer Champions League

Injuries, absences leave Barcelona no room for comeback against 10-man Ajax

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By now, everybody knows Barcelona are without Lionel Messi, the world’s best player out until 2014 with a hamstring injury. But Spanish champions had five other regulars missing from today’s starting XI in Amsterdam, a group that fell victim to Dutch champions Ajax, 2-1.

First half goals from Thulani Sereno and Danny Hoesen sent the home team into intermission up two, though things swung back the Blaugrana’s way early in the second half when Joël Veltman gave up a penalty that also saw the Ajax defender red carded. Up a man for the match’s final 42 minutes, Barcelona were unable to build on Xavi Hernández’s conversion, left to suffer their first loss in all competitions this season.

While the defeat will have little effect on Barcelona, who have already sewn up a place in the round of 16 (and will win the group with a home draw with Celtic on Dec. 11), it keeps Ajax within reach of the knockout rounds. Scheduled to play their final group stage match in Italy, the Dutch champions are within one point of second place Milan. An upset on Dec. 11 at the San Siro will see Frank de Boer’s side into the round of 16.

After a high-intensity start that eventually saw Barcelona wrestle some control of the game, defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets (dress, but on the bench) proved just as missed as Messi, with Ajax able to compete with Barcelona’s normally dominant midfield. In the 14th minute, Ajax launched their first major move toward goal, with the home team’s first goal coming from Thulani Serero five minutes later. Putting home a cross from Ajax’s right, the 23-year-old South African gave his team a 1-0 lead.

source: Reuters
Viktor Fischer and Jasper Cillessen embrace to celebrate Ajax’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona. (Photo: Reuters.)

The goal, along with Danny Hoesen’s 41st minute winner, came against a Barcelona defense unsettled by its absences. With Carles Puyol forced to play right back, the absent Dani Alves as noticeably missed, as was left back Jordi Alba, a longer-term absence. With starting goalkeeper Victor Valdes also out, Barcelona had only one of their first choice back five in their proper place. As with the two-on-one Puyol was left to handle on the cross for the first goal, the defense’s giveaway (from Mascherano) and inability to clear out a bouncing rebound allowed Hoesen to double Ajax’s lead.

As they tried to find back in the second half, the Blaugrana also missed Alexi Sanchez, with Martino left bringing Adama Traoré, Sergi Roberto, and Patric off the bench. Though they controlled the match’s final 40 minutes, Barcelona only managed two shots on goal, Ajax able to hold out with 10-men against a half-strength squad.

Unlike the case of Chelsea, who also suffered a road upset on Tuesday, there are easy answers to why Barcelona were knocked off. While there may not be a huge difference in quality between Ajax and Basel (both underdogs played extremely well), Chelsea were using players that usually feature among their first choice XIs. Whereas José Mourinho’s substitutes were Fernando Torres, Eden Hazard, and Kevin De Druyne, Barcelona was left relying on little used prospects.

When Martino’s bringing the likes of Traoré, Roberto, and Patric on to chase an equalizing goal, it’s no wonder Barcelona were unable to prevent their first loss of the year. But having clinched a spot in the next round, there’s no reason to dwell on what was ultimately a meaningless result.

Goals

Ajax: 19′ Thulani Serero, 41′ Danny Hoesen

Barcelona: 49′ Xavi Hernández

Lineups

Ajax: Jasper Cillessen; Ricardo van Rhijn, Joël Veltman, Niklas Moisander, Nicolai Boilesen (35′ Christian Poulsen); Davy Klaassen, Davey Blin, Tulani Serero; Lasse Schöne (51′ Stefano Denswil), Danny Hoesen (84′ Lerin Duarte), Viktor Fischer

Unused subs: Lesley dde Sa, Mike van der Hoorn, Kenneth Vermeer, Lucas Anderson

Barcelona: Pinto; Carles Puyol (68′ Patric), Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Martín Montoya; Alex Song, Xavi Hernández (74′ Sergi Roberto), Andrés Iniesta; Pedro, Neymar, Cesc Fábregas (82′ Adama Traoré)

Unused subs: Oier, Marc Bartra, Jean Marie Dongou, Sergio Busquets

VIDEO: Man United’s Marcus Rashford scores 3 minutes into his England debut

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 26:  Marcus Rashford of England arrives at the team hotel on the eve of their international friendly against Australia at the Hilton Gateshead on May 26, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
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12 months ago Nine months ago Six months ago Three months ago, if anyone asked you, “who is Marcus Rashford?” you, just like me, probably would have responded as such: “I haven’t a clue. Should I know who he is?”

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Stars are, of course, born overnight in the sports world, and the 18-year-old Manchester United striker, who spent 12 years with the club’s youth academy, is just the latest example. On Feb. 25, he made his first-team debut and scored twice in the Europa League. Three days later, he made his Premier League debut, again scoring twice.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Fast forward to Friday, and Rashford is a fully-fledged England international. In keeping up with the theme of his other debuts this season, he marked his international debut with a goal against Australia after just three minutes of play at the Stadium of Light.

It remains to be seen whether Rashford completes his hat trick of debut braces this year. We’ll update this post if he does so.

Croatia gets 2-match World Cup stadium ban for fascist chant

POZNAN, POLAND - JUNE 10:  Croatian fans light up flares during the UEFA EURO 2012 group C between Ireland and Croatia at The Municipal Stadium on June 10, 2012 in Poznan, Poland.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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ZURICH (AP) Croatia has been ordered to play two World Cup qualifying matches in empty stadiums for repeated cases of fans chanting fascist slogans.

FIFA fined the Croatian soccer federation 150,000 Swiss francs ($151,000), and ordered the stadium bans to take effect when Croatia hosts Turkey on Sept. 5 and Finland on Oct. 9.

Chile was also ordered to play one World Cup qualifier away from its national stadium over fans chanting anti-gay insults, FIFA said in disciplinary rulings announced Friday. FIFA also fined five Latin American soccer federations for “discriminatory and unsporting conduct by fans,” including anti-gay insults, at World Cup qualifiers.

[ MORE: USMNT-Bolivia preview | Castillo replaces Chandler ]

Croatia fans were guilty of discriminatory chants at friendlies against Israel and Hungary in March, FIFA said.

Croatia “had already been sanctioned for similar incidents by FIFA and UEFA” in previous seasons, the world soccer body said.

Before the 2014 World Cup, FIFA banned Croatia defender Josip Simunic for 10 matches for leading fans in a World War II-era chant used by the country’s then-puppet regime.

After incidents of anti-gay chants at the last World Cup in Brazil, FIFA has cracked down on insults aimed by Latin American fans at players on rival teams.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Chile cannot use its national stadium when it hosts Bolivia on Sept. 6 and must pay a fine of 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,250). A second stadium-ban sanction was deferred for a two-year probationary period.

In other sanctions for soccer federations, FIFA fined Honduras 40,000 Swiss francs ($40,300), Mexico and El Salvador 35,000 Swiss francs ($35,275) each, Paraguay 20,000 Swiss francs ($20,150), and Peru 15,000 Swiss francs ($15,115).

UEFA Champions League final preview — Madrid’s finest Real or Atleti?

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 27:  Diego Simeone head coach of Atletico Madrid looks on during an Atletico de Madrid training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League Final against Real Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 27, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final isn’t quite the unstoppable force against the immovable object — Real’s defense is good and Atleti has plenty of attacking intent — but it’s fair if you’re expecting the Madrid Derby final to be Diego Simeone’s diligent defenders attempting to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid’s potent attack.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed ]

Simeone’s built his name on tight teamwork, and La Liga teams broke Atleti down a mere 18 times in 38 matches this season. Before you crow about the weakness of Spain’s top flight from top to bottom, Real only managed a single goal against Atleti in a 1-1 draw that came at the Vicente Calderon. Atleti triumphed 1-0 at the Bernabeu to take four of six points from their derby mates.

But this is the big one, and a rematch of the late thriller we saw in the 2014 final. That’s when Diego Godin’s 36th minute goal came within seconds of being the difference, only for Sergio Ramos to net in stoppage time and Real to score three goals in extra time for a 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Torres ready for “game of my life” ]

Ronaldo will be fine to go, which is obviously bad news for Atleti. While his goal at the end of the 2014 final was just chiseled-ab window dressing, he has scored in both of his UCL finals (He scored for Manchester United in the 26th minute of their 2008 defeat of Chelsea).

(Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The beauty of Atleti’s defense is how well it springs into the attack, with Godin and Filipe Luis both capable of providing offense.

But really, with respect to Gabi and Antoine Griezmann… that defense! Atleti allowed three goals in the group stage, and just seven across its 12 UCL matches.

How will Simeone aim to stop Real this time around? Will it be banks of four or five, with Torres and Griezmann waiting to strike on a fleet-footed counter? That could serve their disciplined unit well, but something tells me Simeone has something special cooked up for this much-anticipated rematch, and manager is a distinct edge for Atleti against a still-learning Zinedine Zidane.

As an aside, Griezmann has been fantastic, scoring 32 times this year with seven coming in the UCL. Torres is second in scoring, with 12.

Championship playoff preview: Sheffield Wednesday vs. Hull City

DERBY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 14:  Eldin Jakupovic of Hull City celebrates as Andrew Robertson of Hull City scores their third goal during the Sky Bet Championship Play Off semi final first leg match between Derby County and Hull City at the iPro Stadium on May 14, 2016 in Derby, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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One is hoping to rejoin the Premier League at the first time of asking, while the other to see its first top flight action since 2000 with a win in Saturday’s promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

Hull City did not make the top flight from its inception in 1904 until winning the playoffs in 2008. Since, the Tigers have spent a pair of 2-season stints in the Premier League.

Sheffield Wednesday, for its part, spent nine seasons in the top tier from 1991-2000, but fell as low as League One in the 21st century before a run to the playoffs this season.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determine UCL final ]

Hull’s stingy defense allowed 35 goals this season, tied for the second-best mark in the league, while scoring the fourth-most goals (69). The Tigers finished in fourth place to Wednesday’s sixth, and the sides drew 0-0 at Hull and 1-1 in the reverse fixture.

Uruguayan striker Abel Hernandez was far and away Hull’s most deadly scorer, notching 21 goals in the Championship this season, while Sam Clucas paced the club with 8 assists.

Wednesday’s scoring was paced by former Watford attacker Fernando Forestieri’s 15 goals. Veteran Gary Hooper added 13 for the Owls, who got a team-best eight assists from Ross Wallace.

It’s the “richest game in sports”, and kicks off at Noon ET Saturday.