Ronaldo-less Real Madrid overcome early red card, cruise past Galatasaray, 4-1

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Sergio Ramos seemed to pave the road to a Galatasaray upset, a controversial 26th minute call seeing the Real Madrid defender on the receiving end of a red card. Yet even with their Spanish international as well as their best player (Cristiano Ronaldo) out, Group B’s winners were too much for visiting Galatasaray, who suffered an embarrassing 4-1 loss against 10 men Wednesday at the Santiago Bernábeu.

Eleven minutes after the dismissal, Gareth Bale opened the scored when his 30-yard free kick beat an ill-positoned Eray Iscan. Gala quickly pulled that goal back, Didier Drogba setting up Umut Bulut for a 37th minute equalizer.

Real Madrid, however, would pull away in the second half, with goals from Álvaro Arbeloa, Ángel di María, and Isco helping the home team clinch first in Group B. With 13 points through five matches, the Merengues sit nine points clear of second place Juventus, who defeated FC Copenhagen in Turin, 3-1.

With Ronaldo out, having suffered a hamstring injury this weekend, Carlo Ancelotti gave a rare start to forward Jesé Rodríguez, who joined midfielder Casemiro as surprise selections in a team that only needed a draw to lock down first place.

That team struggled to get a foothold in the match early, with pressure from Galatasaray troubling their hosts. Gala however, were unable to create any meaningful chances , their energy without the ball failing to translate into effectiveness with it.

By the quarter-hour mark, Real Madrid had adjusted and were soon dominating the ball, but when a long pass targeting Umut Bulut left Ramos sprawling to recover, the home team were forced into another period of adjustment. Pursuing a ball deflected behind the defense after an aerial challenge, Bulut went down, apparently entangled with the chasing Ramos. About 24 yards from goal, Ramos was shown straight red after referee William Collum judged the contact to be more than incidental.

Sacrificing Jesé for defender Nacho, Real Madrid initially didn’t miss a beat, their control of play culminating when Felipe Melo brought down Pepe 30 yards from goal. Side-footing the restart from straight in front of goal, Bale curved his ball into the right of net, beating a Galatasaray keeper late to react to the Welshman’s shot.

A minute later, however, Drogba was able to create a goal for Bulut, who beat Pepe to a ball fed into the Real Madrid box. Given too much time on the ball by Casemiro, Drogba was able to scoop a right-footed pass behind Real’s line. Bulut’s burst left Pepe chasing as the Turkish international beat an oncoming Iker Casillas for the equalizer.

As the half stretched on, Galatasaray controlled much of the game, patiently trying to stretch a Real Madrid defense that started to play like a 10-man crew. In the second half, however, the numerical advantage was again rendered irrelevant, with Di María’s 51st minute cross for  Arbeloa catching Dany Nounkeu flat-footed. The Spanish international put home the go-ahead goal from close range, making it 2-1.

Di María would add his own in the 63rd minute, Arbeloa returning the favor by finding the Argentine in the right of the box. In the 80th minute, an individual effort that saw Isco dribble past a man before regaining possession of his own blocked shot ended with the former Málaga star beating Iscan for the day’s final goal.

El Real were without their best player, and 26 minutes into the match, arguably their best defender was given his marching orders. For a Galatasaray team that has designs on Group B’s second spot, this was a gift: their best chance to claim points at the Bernabeu. Yet after 64 minutes of playing against 10 men, the Turks were left with another embarrassing loss.

If they thought their 6-1 defeat to the Blancos in Istanbul was bad, think again. At least they were playing a full team last time around. This time, they may have been better off if Ramos had stayed on.

Goals

Real Madrid: 36′ Gareth Bale, 51′ Alvaro Arbeloa, 63′ Ángel di María, 80′ Isco

Galatasaray: 37′ Umut Bulut

Lineups

Real Madrid: Iker Casillas; Álvaro Arbeloa, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo (75′ Daniel Carvajal); Aiser Illarramendi, Casemiro (59′ Xabi Alonso); Gareth Bale, Isco, Ángel di María; Jesé Rodríguez (28′ Nacho)

Unused subs: Diego López, Karim Benzema, Álvaro Morata, José Rodríguez

Galatasaray: Eray Isacn; Emmanuel Eboué, Aurelien Chedjou, Göhkan Zan, Dany Nounkeu; Bruma (64′ Wesley Sneijder), Felipe Melo (88′ Ceyhun Güiselam), Selcuk Inan, Nourredine Amrabat (67′ Albert Riera); Umut Bulut, Didier Drogba

Unused subs: Burak Yilmaz, Sabri Sarioglu, Ufuk Celyan, Semih Kaya

Mascherano still believes Neymar is “the future” of Barcelona

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The Neymar-to-PSG saga has escalated quickly, and signs of the Brazilian’s move to Paris are growing, but one Barcelona player remains confident that his compatriot will stay in Spain ahead of the new La Liga season.

[ MORE: Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

PSG has shown a willingness over recent days to meet Barca’s worldly $260 million transfer fee for the 25-year-old, while Neymar has reportedly alerted his teammates that he will in fact be heading to the Parc des Princes next month.

Veteran Barcelona midfielder/defender Javier Mascherano is one of the Blaugrana players that hopes Neymar will stick around and help anchor the La Liga giants for years to come despite a possible massive payday in store.

“Obviously he is young and I hope he’s here with Barcelona for many more years,” the Argentina defender said to ESPN.

“He is a really important player for the club. Because of his age, he’s the future of the club and we hope we can keep on counting on him.

“He’s accustomed to the pressure and people talking. There’s always going to be rumours and news around him.

“It’s really difficult to give advice. Firstly, I’m not anyone to be giving advice and secondly, I see him really happy here, really happy. [Barca] are a club that have made it possible for him to perform at his best. But after that, each person has to make their own decisions.”

If Neymar does bolt for Paris the complexion of the MSN-Barca attack changes drastically despite still boasting elite talents Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

[ MORE: Man United drops Man City in Houston “Manchester Derby” ]

Barca has done little in the transfer market this summer, only adding Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo of Benfica. The club continues to pursue Liverpool attacker Philippe Coutinho, however, the Reds recently rejected a bid of $93 million.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.