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.


Goals

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

Celtic: Georgios Samaras 88

Lineups

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

Premier League Preview: Southampton vs. Hull City

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  • Hull won 2-1 on Nov. 6
  • Tigers two points clear of drop zone
  • Saints lead all-time 23W-20D-15L

After back-to-back losses to Man City and Chelsea, Saints meet a different kind of desperation when Hull City arrives at St. Mary’s (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With a win, Hull can move five points clear of the final relegation spot and heap pressure on Swansea City, who plays Sunday. With a loss, Marco Silva’s men open the 17th place door for Swans.

[ MORE: JPW on Romeu the Destroyer ]

Since the start of the 2011-12 season in the Championship, Southampton has won six of seven matches against Hull. That seventh, however, was the match at the KCOM Stadium earlier this season, one that saw now-West Ham man Robert Snodgrass spur a Tigers comeback.

Saints open the day four points back of eighth place West Brom, and also hold a match-in-hand on the Baggies.

What they’re saying

Saints boss Claude Puel on slump busting“After two losses it’s important to move forward now and take points on Saturday in front of our own fans. We have to improve in the right areas and find a good balance of play, but also a good clinical edge in both penalty areas.”

Marco Silva on Hull’s away troubles““We have conceded goals on the counter-attack away from home in games when the result has been looking good for us – we cannot make it possible for our opponents to do this to us. The second goal we conceded at Stoke is an example of this – conceded at a time when we were in control of the game. Details like this are making the difference and these are things we must look to change. This is clear to me and I pass this on to my players.”

Prediction

Saints have more quality than Hull, but may not have as much fire in the belly. Still, home field means a lot here and Southampton should reverse the score line from November’s tilt. 2-1, with Manolo Gabbiadini and Dusan Tadic leading the way.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.