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

Prosecutors question Beckenbauer in World Cup fraud case

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BERN, Switzerland (AP) Swiss authorities say prosecutors have questioned Germany soccer great Franz Beckenbauer in their ongoing World Cup fraud case.

[ MORE: Shorthanded USMNT looks to build momentum vs. Honduras ]

Criminal proceedings against Beckenbauer and three other German members of the 2006 World Cup organizing committee were opened in 2015. The four are suspected of fraud, money laundering, criminal mismanagement, and misappropriation relating to a payment of 6.7 million euros ($7 million) to FIFA in 2005.

[ MORE: Five questions for USMNT ahead of Honduras WCQ ]

The Swiss attorney general’s office said in a statement to The Associated Press on Thursday that federal prosecutors questioned Beckenbauer earlier in the day in Bern, adding that “Beckenbauer was cooperative.”

Beckenbauer’s home in Austria was raided last year for evidence on behalf of Swiss federal prosecutors investigating corruption linked to FIFA.

Report: Man City launching massive bid for AC Milan’s Donnarumma

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Gianluigi Donnarumma has quickly established himself as the best young goalkeeper in European soccer, and AC Milan won’t be letting the 18-year-old go without a pretty penny in return.

[ MORE: Schedule, preview for UEFA World Cup qualifying ]

According to Sky Sport Italia, Manchester City is preparing a massive bid in the range of $130 to $160 million to acquire the AC Milan shot-stopper as the English side’s goalkeeping situation is still unsettled.

The Citizens have failed to hunker down at the goalkeeper position this season despite spending big to bring in Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, who has underperformed. Willy Caballero has also been shaky at times for the English giants, while on-loan keeper Joe Hart will almost certainly move on from the club over the summer.

Donnarumma is currently second in Serie A in saves (110), trailing only Crotone’s Alex Cordaz, who has stopped two more shots.

Since turning professional in 2015, Donnarumma has quickly enjoyed his rise through Italian football for both AC Milan and with the national team. After previously featuring for the Under-15, U-17 and U-21 sides, Donnarumma has established himself as the surefire replacement for Gianluigi Buffon once he retires from the international game.

Honduran federation suggests U.S. Soccer gamesmanship ahead of WCQ

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Three critical points are on the line for the U.S. Men’s National Team and Honduras on Friday night when CONCACAF World Cup qualifying returns to action, but the Central American side may have some added motivation.

[ MORE: Shorthanded USMNT looks to build momentum vs. Honduras ]

In the lead up to their Hexagonal meeting in San Jose, California, Honduran federation president Jorge Salomon has suggested that his national team has had difficulty finding training facilities because of U.S. Soccer’s gamesmanship.

[ MORE: Five USMNT questions ahead of WCQs ]

Salomon told Honduran outlet Diez that Los Catrachos were forced to train in Fort Myers, Florida ahead of the match because of U.S. Soccer’s attempt to sabotage Honduras’ comfortability ahead of Friday.

“That’s why we went to (Fort Myers),” Salomon told Diez. “We found two (fields) but they weren’t up to the standard for a national team.

“They have blocked us from some fields to train, but that is part of the sporting psychological battle you face when you are the visiting team,” Salomon added. “It’s no problem, we have done a good job.”

Meanwhile, Goal USA is reporting that U.S. Soccer claims to have provided Honduras with the same resources that it does for every visiting opponent and that it was Honduras’ choice to train in Florida as “a cost-saving measure.”

Rapinoe named to USWNT roster ahead of April friendlies

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The U.S. Women’s National Team wasn’t at its best the last time they stepped out for the SheBelieves Cup, but Jill Ellis’ group will have a chance to find their feet again next month as they prepare to face Russia in a pair of friendlies.

[ MORE: Five questions for USMNT ahead of Honduras WCQ ]

Ellis announced her 24-player roster on Thursday, which was headlined by the inclusion of Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe.

“This is our last chance to get together before the NWSL starts and we’ll take full advantage of the training time as well as the two matches against a team in preparation for the European championships,” said Ellis. “Following these matches, my staff and I will begin a heavy investment in attending and evaluating the NWSL games as well as tracking our players overseas before we get back together for our European trip in the summer. I’m very much looking forward to our domestic league starting.”

Back-to-back losses to England and France in the SheBelieves Cup gave the USWNT an unwanted start to 2017, however, the Russians will give the U.S. another strong test in April.

The USWNT will play the first of the two friendlies on April 6 in Dallas at Toyota Stadium before meeting the Russians three days later in Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Here’s the entire 24-player roster for the USWNT ahead of their Russia friendlies.

Goalkeepers (3): Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders (6): Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Megan Oyster (Boston Breakers), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars)

Midfielders (8): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Rose Lavelle (Boston Breakers), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash/Manchester City), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Samantha Mewis (NC Courage), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign)

Forwards (7): Crystal Dunn (Chelsea FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride/Olympique Lyonnais, FRA), Kealia Ohai (Houston Dash), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (UCLA), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Lynn Williams (NC Courage)