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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.

Exasperated Klopp: “We were not physical enough” vs Leicester

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  Liverpool players make their way back to the half way line after they let in their first goal during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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A desperate Leicester City battered Liverpool at the King Power Stadium on Monday, leaving Reds boss Jurgen Klopp to question how his side lost to another relegation candidate.

That’s four teams in the Bottom Seven to beat the Reds this season, and the fifth is 11th place Burnley.

[ RECAP: Leicester 3-1 Liverpool ]

Klopp said he could explain the loss in German, but the challenge of doing it in English was proving difficult.

“The language issues always come a little bit more when you have to explain defeats and it’s really difficult to find the right words. It was not an over aggressive game from Leicester. Even for this level we were not physical enough today.”

Liverpool did look soft without midfielder Jordan Henderson, and did have multiple midfielders in the back line with Lucas Leiva at center back and James Milner on the right.

But moreover, the players failed to follow some of Klopp’s guidelines. For example, Christian Fuchs was able to launch several of his big throws into the 18. One helped Leicester to a goal.

“We gave throw-ins away like we never spoke about it. It does not make much sense to give away 20 throw-ins to Fuchs from that position.”

It wasn’t good enough, and it’s baffling to see Liverpool this season. A club that took four of six points from Chelsea has lost to a quartet of relegation battlers. This isn’t good.

Liverpool continues to wilt against lesser lights

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27: Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool reacts during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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Plenty will be said about Leicester City’s performance in Monday’s 3-1 defeat of Liverpool at King Power Stadium, but the visitors’ problems are screaming at a similar volume.

The Reds play a bit like a team expecting it to be easier, which is baffling given its struggles in 2017. When the calendar turned, Liverpool had just toppled Manchester City 1-0.

[ RECAP: Leicester 3-1 Liverpool ]

It’s been a horror story this new year. The Reds needed a replay to beat Plymouth in the FA Cup en route to being bounced by Wolverhampton in the fourth round. They lost 2-0 to Southampton in the EFL Cup semifinal. And as for league form? Woof.

Liverpool in the Premier League, 2017
Jan. 2 – at Sunderland, D 2-2
Jan. 15 – at Man Utd, D 1-1
Jan. 21 – vs. Swansea City, L 2-3
Jan. 28 – vs. Chelsea, D 1-1
Feb. 4 – at Hull City, L 0-2
Feb. 11 – vs Spurs, W 2-0
Feb. 27 – at Leicester, L 0-2

In total, that’s two wins and four draws in 12 matches. The Reds have allowed two or more goals on five occasions, and four times they’ve been held off the score sheet.

The answers weren’t there. They haven’t been for most of the year. Nathaniel Clyne‘s bright work on the right rarely found a willing receiver, as Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum failed to make much of an impact. Yes, Jordan Henderson was missing but that shouldn’t sink a side into the abyss.

The Reds were late to the party, though at least they bothered to show up unlike the 2-0 loss at Hull three weeks ago. Liverpool has lost at Hull, Bournemouth, Burnley, and Leicester this season, with an additional home loss to Swansea City.

Those are 15 points surrendered to the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 19th place teams, plus recently promoted Burnley (11th). For good measure, the Reds drew 2-2 at 20th place Sunderland. That leaves Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough as the lone members of the Bottom Seven to not take a point from Liverpool.

The Reds have been the team version of Moussa Sissoko, well up for the big boys but yawning at the task of playing lesser lights (Granted Monday’s match was under the bright lights). How else do you explain a team with the record above also boasting an unbeaten mark against the Top Seven (5W-4D)?

Liverpool needs a change in attitude. And don’t be fooled if they beat Arsenal this weekend or Man City in two weeks. See if they show up at home to Burnley on March 12.

Leicester City 3-1 Liverpool: Champions Awakened

Leicester players celebrate after Leicester's Daniel Drinkwater scored during the English Premier League soccer match between Leicester City and Liverpool at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)
AP Photo/Rui Vieira
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  • First match since Ranieri firing
  • Vardy nabs brace
  • Coutinho ruins clean sheet

Jamie Vardy and Danny Drinkwater helped the King Power Stadium to a taste of the Leicester of old, as the Foxes opened the post-Claudio Ranieri era with a 3-1 defeat of Liverpool on Monday.

Philippe Coutinho scored the lone goal for the visitors.

Leicester climbs back out of the drop zone and into 15th with 24 points. Liverpool remains fifth place with 49 points.

The two goals were Vardy’s first time on a Premier League scoresheet since netting a hat trick in a 4-2 win over Man City on Dec. 10.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Robert Huth flicked a long Christian Fuchs throw towards the frame, and Simon Mignolet leapt to corral the goal-bound ball.

Another big Fuchs throw led to a corner when Mignolet denied Shinji Okazaki‘s flying header.

Vardy then forced Mignolet into a close-range save when the Leicester striker bodied Lucas Leiva and beat Joel Matip to attempt a shot.

Vardy found his mark with a long ball from a field player. Marc Albrighton spied an opening from his own half and played Vardy on goal, with the English striker beating Mignolet to the near post.

The danger wasn’t over. Vardy lost his dribble and backheeled to Wilfried Ndidi for a shot that Mignolet stopped in the six.

Drinkwater made it 2-0 with a volley from outside the 18 that sent King Power Stadium into bedlam. Commentator Arlo White noted that the press area was shaking following the celebration.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Liverpool looked gun shy well into the second half, with Philippe Coutinho giving the hint of urgency on a 55th minute rip corralled by Schmeichel.

The Reds then allowed Riyad Mahrez and Christian Fuchs to work the left side before the latter crossed in front of Emre Can, where Vardy flew to power a header home.

Coutinho made it 3-1 on a layoff from Can to give Liverpool a bit of life and the Brazilian his first Premier League goal since Nov. 6.

The Reds didn’t quit, though they found it hard to invade the Foxes’ 18. Leicester wasn’t much help in the matter, doggedly staying with their marks and spaces as the match edged toward stoppage time.

WATCH: Drinkwater rocket doubles Leicester City lead

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Leicester City’s first half of Premier League play without Claudio Ranieri has gone very, very well.

Marc Albrighton set up Jamie Vardy for an early goal before Danny Drinkwater scored a beauty of his own, and the Foxes have a 2-0 lead over Liverpool at King Power Stadium.

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The Foxes got a roar and a standing ovation from the KP at the break, as the champs look prepared to make their stay in the drop zone a brief one.