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Lionel Messi could return for Barcelona by Jan. 5, one week ahead of showdown at Atlético Madrid

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With a showdown match against Atlético Madrid looming on Jan. 11, Barcelona need to get Lionel Messi back as soon as possible. Luckily for the defending La Liga champions, the Argentine’s hamstring appears to be cooperating, with the team considering moving up his expected return date in response to the injury’s improvements.

According to reports out of Spain, Barça was originally targeting their trip to second place Atlético for Messi’s return. Now, given the progress the 26-year-old has shown, the Spanish leaders are considering moving Messi’s return from Argentina up to Jan. 5, theoretically giving Messi games against Elche (in league) and Granada (in Copa del Rey) to prepare for Jan. 11’s big match.

The news comes after Barcelona physical trainer Elvio Paolorosso visited Messi in Rosario, Argentina last week. A final determination on Messi’s return won’t be made until the star arrives in Catalonia on Jan. 2, but Paolorosso’s visit gave the club’s staff reason to think the reigning Ballon d’ Or honoree will be able to log some time ahead of the team’s visit to the Vicente Calderón.

Messi had scored eight times in 11 league appearances before being sidelined after Nov. 10th’s match at Real Betis, a 4-1 victory for Barcelona. The team ruled their then-leading scorer out until the new year, allowing Messi to return to Argentina earlier this month to continue his recovery.

Without him, Barcelona has gone 6-2-0 in all competitions, though the team has also been troubled by longterm absences to goalkeeper Víctor Valdés, right back Dani Alves, and left back Jordi Alba, who has since returned. Central defender Carles Puyol has had trouble staying healthy, while midfielder Xavi Hernández has also been slowed by fitness issues.

All the while, Atlético Madrid won’t go away. Dating back to their 1-0 loss at Espanyol on Oct. 19, Diego Simeone’s team has gone 12-0-2, their 46 points matching Barcelona’s total through 17 rounds. In Messi’s absence, Atleti striker Diego Costa is leading the league’s scoring race, having scored 19 times. With Atlético playing Barcelona to two draws in the preseason Supercopa, Gerardo Martino’s squad will be under no false assumptions about the strength of Madrid’s ‘other’ club.

Getting Messi back for their visit to the Calderón was always going to be crucial for Barcelona, but thanks to a quicker-than-expected recovery, Messi may get a chance to find his legs beforethe biggest game in La Liga’s  title race.

Atleti’s Torres ready for “game of his life” in UEFA Champions League final

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 21: Atletico de Madrid players Saul Niguez (L) and Fernando Torres (R) stretch during the training session during the Club Atletico de Madrid Open Media Day ahead of the UEFA Champions League Final match against Real Madrid CF on May 21, 2016 in Majadahonda, Spain.
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Fernando Torres has won the UEFA Champions League before, but a victory on Saturday would ring as true as ever.

Calling it the game of his life, the Atletico Madrid striker spoke about this year’s final against Real Madrid.

[ MORE: Three battles that could determined UCL final ]

A lot has changed since the 2012 victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, when Torres subbed into Chelsea’s comeback win.

His decline at Chelsea found him on loan to Milan, where he transferred before finding another loan back home to Atleti. Now 32, Torres has his most goals since 2013 and is preparing for a Madrid Derby final.

From Sky Sports:

“Tomorrow [Saturday] is the game of my life, without doubt,” said Torres. “To me it means everything. Everything you dream when you’re a kid, I have the chance tomorrow to make this dream come true.

“I’ve played for great teams, and won many things, but this one is special, it is different, it’s what I wanted when I was a kid.”

Later lauding Atleti for giving him the chance “to come back and fight for what I wanted”, Torres is clearly hungry for a bit of redemption. And if his side comes out on top, he’ll likely be a big part of it.

Costa injury sends Kaka into Brazil’s Copa America squad

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 06:  Kaka (R) is seen on the field prior to a MLS soccer match between Real Salt Lake and the Orlando City SC at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on March 6, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. Kaka will not start the season opener due to injury. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
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Orlando City is losing its wizard for a bit.

Kaka, 34, has been called into Dunga’s Brazil squad for this summer’s Copa America Centenario.

The move was made after Bayern Munich star Douglas Costa picked up an injury that will cause him to miss the tournament.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | B | C | D ]

The 2007 Ballon D’Or winner didn’t play in that year’s Copa America, which Brazil won.

Kaka has two goals and five assists in 7 MLS matches this season, a year after netting nine times with six assists in 28 matches.

Evans to face new rape trial in October

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - MARCH 28:  Sheffield United player Ched Evans in action during the npower League One game between Sheffield United and Chesterfield at Bramall Lane on March 28, 2012 in Sheffield, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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CARDIFF, Wales (AP) A former Premier League player whose rape conviction was overturned will face a new trial in October.

Ched Evans, a Wales international who has played for Manchester City and Sheffield United, appeared in court in Cardiff on Friday and pleaded not guilty to raping a woman at a hotel in May 2011.

[ MORE: Mourinho confirmed | Speaks more ]

Evans had already served half of a five-year sentence before being released from prison and getting the conviction overturned in April following an appeal.

Evans only spoke briefly to confirm his identity before entering his plea.

The new trial will start on Oct. 4 in Cardiff.

Mourinho: “I prefer to forget the last three years” of Manchester United

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho is asked for his autograph by fans prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on October 26, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has immediately begun courting the fans of his new club.

The 53-year-old Portuguese manager may’ve run rivals Chelsea on two occasions, but claims he’s always had empathy with United even when defeating the Old Trafford club.

[ MORE: United hires Mourinho | Things he must do ]

In an interview with Manchester United TV, Mourinho issues some high praise of the club while also managing a bit of classic “The Special One” ego in saying, “Giant clubs must be for the best managers.”

As for the disappointing trio of years between David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal, Mourinho says he’d rather consider his tenure in line with the run of Alex Ferguson.

From the BBC:

“I think we can look at our club in two perspectives – one is the past three years and another is the history. I prefer to forget the last three years. I prefer to focus on the giant club I have in my hands now. “

Mourinho has had some time to calculate the best way to endear himself to United supporters, and playing to their belief as the most historic club in the world sure pushes the right buttons.

Now comes the task of delivering titles in a climate more competitive than any other time in modern history.