Neymar’s first three Champions League goals see Barcelona to 6-1 win, top of Group H

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If the purchase of Neymar was supposed to alleviate Barcelona’s dependence on Lionel Messi, the 21-year-old phenom finally put that plan into effect on Wednesday. Scoring three times and setting up a fourth, Neymar found his way onto a UEFA Champions League scoresheet for the first time in six games, giving the Messi-less Blaugrana a 6-1 win over Celtic at the Nou Camp.

In the process, the three-time champions confirmed their place atop Group H, their 4-1-1 group stage record leaving them four points clear of second place Milan. That standing ensures they’ll draw against the competition’s group stage runners-up on Dec. 16, with Champions League’s Round of 16 set to resume on Feb. 18.

The layoff gives Barcelona fans time to savor a breakout performance from the club’s $78.6 million  purchase, a player who’d settled into the shadows during the first months of his European career. Entering the match, the former Santos star had five goals in 20 all competition matches, and while he’d also contributed nine assists in that time, the Brazilian’s goal scoring had been undermined by a transition period. After scoring 56 goals in his last year-and-half with Santos, Neymar was having to play second fiddle.

But with Messi still sidelined with a thigh problem, Neymar was center stage on Wednesday, a spotlight in which he thrived. After Gerard Piqué had opened the scoring in the seventh minute (putting home the rebound of an Alexis Sánchez shot), Neymar played a part in Barcelona’s next four goals.

In the 39th minute, Pedro Rodríguez doubled Barcelona’s lead after a Neymar step-over froze Celtic defender Efe Ambrose, with the Brazilian subsequently finding his teammate at the edge of the six-yard box. In the 44th, a scoop over the defense from Sanchez found right back Martín Montoya, with goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s save deflecting to Neymar for a finish into an empty goal.

Up 3-0 at halftime, Barcelona would double their lead in the second, the first salvo giving Neymar his second of the match. In the 48th minute. off a one-two with Xavi Hernández, Neymar was able to get a shot away from just inside the 18-yard box, his try beating Forster into the left of Celtic’s goal.  Ten minutes later, Neymar had his hat trick, nutmegging Ambrose before putting a close range shot off Adam Mathews. making it 5-0, Barcelona.

Neymar would tease a fourth with close calls in the 65th and 74th minute, but by the time he was taken off in the 81st, it was Cristian Tello who had finished Barça’s scoring. The returning attacker, having come on for Alexis Sánchez in the 63rd minute, scored from the middle of the area in the 72nd minute. An 88th minute set piece headed home by Georgios Samaras proved the only blemish in Barcelona’s 6-1 rout.

It was a refreshingly dominant performance for a Barcelona team that’d lost two of its last three games, their only victory coming against a lower division club in Spain’s Copa del Rey. But with a quick, ruthless efficiency the team’s missed since the start of the season, Gerardo Martino’s team gave their most convincing performance since Messi’s injury.

In the process, they showed why the team need not be so wary of their star’s absence. Whereas a spring injury to Messi derailed Barça’s 2012-13 Champions League campaign, this year they have insurance. If this is the Neymar was can expect going forward — one that’s shaken free of his transition phase to embrace his potential — Barcelona may ready to be more than Messi and friends.


Barcelona: Gerard Piqué 7, Pedro Rodríguez 39, Neymar 44, 48, Cristian Tello 72

Celtic: Georgios Samaras 88


Barcelona: Pinto; Martín Montoya, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets (Alex Song 73), Xavi Hernández; Alexis Sánchez (Cristian Tello 63), Neymar (Jean Marie Dongou 81), Pedro Rodríguez

Unused substitutes: Andrés Iniesta, Jodri Alba, Carles Puyol, Oier

Celtic: Fraser Forster; Mikael Lustig, Efe Ambrose, Virgil van Dijk, Adam Matthews (Anthony Stokes 82); Dirk Boerrigter, Nir Biton (Kris Commons 69), Sean Brown, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras; Teemu Pukki (Charlie Mulgrew 45)

Unused substitutes: Lukasz Zaluska, Bahrudin Atajic, Amido Baldé, Darnell Fisher

MLS: NYCFC with 3 wins in 3; defending champs TFC point-less

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NEW YORK (AP) Ismael Tajouri and Maximiliano Moralez scored 12-minutes apart in the second half and New York City FC opened the season with three straight wins for the first time in the club’s short history with a 2-0 victory over Orlando City on Saturday.

Orlando goalkeeper Joe Bendik misplayed a back-pass that went right to Tajouri inside the 18-yard box and Tajouri took a few touches to the penalty spot for an easy finish in the 62nd minute. After an Orlando giveaway to Saad Abdul-Salaam, Jesus Medina settled it for an oncoming Moralez to slide it home.

NYCFC (3-0-0) was without start David Villa due to a minor injury.

Orlando City (0-2-1), led by NYC’s former coach Jason Kreis (2014-15), has its share of injury problems as well. Striker Stefano Pinho had a right ankle injury last Saturday, leaving on crutches, and playmaker Dom Dwyer will be out for at least two more weeks.

Sacha Kljestan made his debut for Orlando after serving a two-game ban. The club arrived late due to the St. Patrick’s Day parade traffic.

MONTREAL (AP) Jeisson Vargas scored four minutes before the intermission to lift Montreal to a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the Impact’s home opener Saturday.

It was the first MLS goal for 20-year-old Vargas and the first win for new coach Remi Garde, who replaced Mauro Biello in December as coach of the Impact (1-2).

Toronto (0-2) played its first game since a rousing victory in the CONCACAF Champions League over Mexican side Tigres. The travel to Mexico may have sapped some energy from the defending MLS champions, who nonetheless started most of their top players.

Garde seemed to catch everyone off guard by starting a three-man backline with former Marseille defender Rod Fanni making his debut in the middle.

It made for a mostly uneventful first half until Saphir Taider intercepted a ball and sent Ignacio Piatti up the middle. Three Toronto defenders focused on the Impact captain, leaving Vargas open on the right side to take the pass and slice a shot inside the goalpost in the 41st minute for their first lead in three games.

Piatti was inside the Toronto penalty area on two more occasions before the break but Nick Hagglund blocked one dangerous shot and another was also turned away.

Eight minutes into the second half, Piatti sent Taider in alone but Alexander Bono pushed the shot.

Toronto threatened in the 64th when Sebastian Giovinco got the ball to striker Jozy Altidore. He lifted a shot over goalie Evan Bush but saw it bounce just wide. Toronto looked to have tied it in the 84th minute when Altidore’s shot got behind Bush and was rolling slowly to the goal line, but Michael Petrasso swept it away at the last second.

Montreal striker Matteo Mancosu, who missed practice this week for what the team called precautionary reasons, didn’t dress.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez, who has had back trouble, didn’t dress for Toronto. Chris Mavinga (suspected sports hernia) was in the lineup but did not start.

Mourinho slams Man Utd players for “lack of desire” despite FA Cup win

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Jose Mourinho, voted the manager mostly likely to zig when everyone else in the world is zagging*, laid into his Manchester United players on Saturday despite the fact the Red Devils topped Brighton & Hove Albion to advance to the semifinals of the FA Cup.

*not a real poll that has ever been taken, as far as we’re aware

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

The Portuguese boss called out his players for what he deemed “a lack of personality, a lack of class, and a lack of desire” in the 2-0 victory at Old Trafford.

quotes from the Guardian:

“The basic things is to keep the emotional balance to play with that red shirt, which is a heavy shirt to wear. But to feel not comfortable to play, saying, ‘Please Mister, take me from the pitch.’ I felt that. So I have nothing to lose in relation to that. The strong ones will be always the strong ones. The young ones, under pressure and under criticism, will improve or will not improve.

“Matic was an island of personality and quality. But a few of the other guys, I saw them scared to play. Look, I cannot say much more. I think it is in relation with personality, in relation to trust, in relation to class. And you know when the sun is shining, and in football the sun is shining when everything goes well, you win matches, you score goals, everything goes in your direction, every player is a good player and every player wants to play and every player wants the ball and every player is confident to play and every player looks amazing.

“When it is dark and cold and that in football means a period of bad results or a bad result like what happened to us a couple of days ago, not everybody has the confidence and the personality to play really. Because to be on the pitch and touch the ball every five minutes, anyone can do it but to be on the pitch and say: ‘Give me the ball because I want to play,’ that is a little bit more difficult. Not all of them were able to do it.”

As for 21-year-old Scott McTominay, Mourinho singled him out for criticism not only in the public forum, but in the locker room after the final whistle:

“You have the kid that didn’t play well at all. I told him already, he was the first one I spoke to individually in the dressing room. And instead of being critical with him, I was positive with him saying: ‘You played very bad but you did the basic things that one player has to do.'”

This is year two of Mourinho’s reign at Old Trafford, and if the signs of fractures between manager and players are beginning to sound all too familiar, one should be reminded that Mourinho only signed a new contract to remain at the club through 2020 (with a further option) in January.

Serie A: Juventus slip up vs. SPAL, let Napoli back in the race

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Spurs advance to FA Cup semifinal | Man United join them ]

SPAL 2013 0-0 Juventus

Just one week after going top of the league with a game in hand, Juventus slipped up away to 17th-place SPAL on Saturday and left the door ever so slightly ajar for second-place Napoli in the title race.

Juve had 65 percent of possession on the day and out-shot SPAL by a count of 12-3 (3-0 on target), but the likes of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Douglas Costa and Miralem Pjanic couldn’t beat 20-year-old goalkeeper Alex Meret (on loan from Udinese).

(Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Massimiliano Allegri’s side now leads Napoli by five points, but the game in hand now belongs to the chasers, who host 13th-place Genoa on Sunday with a chance to cut the deficit to just two points with nine games remaining. Just when it seemed crystal clear and a foregone conclusion Juve would wrap up their seventh straight Serie A title, newly promoted SPAL helped to make things quite interesting once again.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Udinese 1-2 Sassuolo

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Sampdoria vs. Inter Milan — 7:30 a.m. ET
Crotone vs. Roma — 10 a.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Chievo — 10 a.m. ET
Torino vs. Fiorentina — 10 a.m. ET
Hellas Verona vs. Atalanta — 10 a.m. ET
Benevento vs. Cagliari — 10 a.m. ET
Napoli vs. Genoa — 3:45 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Bologna — 3:45 p.m. ET

Man Utd joins Spurs in FA Cup semis

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Jose Mourinho has come under heavy scrutiny in recent days and weeks, as his Manchester United side crashed out of the Champions League this week and continue to trail runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City by 16 points, yet the Portuguese is perhaps just 180 minutes from finishing the 2017-18 with a major trophy anyway.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Swansea to reach FA Cup semis ]

Man United got the best of Brighton & Hove Albion, to the tune of 2-0 at Old Trafford on Saturday, to book their spot at Wembley Stadium in the semifinals of the FA Cup. Romelu Lukaku scored the winning goal not long before halftime, with United grinding out another laborious result with superstars Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez glued to the bench for the whole of 90 minutes.

United enjoyed a healthy 61 percent of possession in the game, but were out-shot by the 12th-place side in the PL by a sizable margin, 16-8 (4-2 on target).

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores ] 

Lukaku’s rampage through the FA Cup continued in the 37th minute, as the big Belgian striker bagged not only his 23rd goal of the season in all competitions, but his fifth of the tournament thus far and extended his record of having scored in each round to four games.

Nemanja Matic floated a cross from the let side of the box to the back post, where Lukaku had created a yard or two of space for himself. Tim Krul didn’t come out to catch it, and Lukaku headed it just under the crossbar to give the Old Trafford faithful reason to smile again.

[ PREVIEW: Who will join Spurs, United at Wembley?

It was Matic who got on the end of another back-post ball, this one from an Ashley Young free kick, in the 84th minute to put United two goals ahead and secure the club’s second FA Cup semifinals appearance in seven seasons (United enjoyed a run of five final-four appearances out of eight in the years prior).

Tottenham Hotspur, who trail United by four points in the race for second in the PL, were the first side to advance to this season’s semifinals by winning 3-0 away to Swansea City on Saturday.