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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.

After January camp, USMNT looks to rosters for World Cup, Olympic qualifying

at StubHub Center on January 31, 2016 in Carson, California.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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The United States men’s national team finished its experimental January camp with a 2-0 record, and now trains its eyes on World Cup and Olympic qualifying.

The last part is critical not just because of the ramifications of a potential second-successive Olympic absence for the men’s U-23 side.

[ USMNT: Tops Iceland 3-2 | Knocks off Canada, too ]

The Yanks have to deftly divide their player pool because March 25 and 29 are not only the dates for the next round of World Cup qualifying matches — a home-and-home series with Guatemala — but also the dates for the U-23s’ pair of matches with Colombia.

That’s why Jordan Morris isn’t likely headed to Guatemala City, and the same is true for impressive January camper Jerome Kiesewetter and new Chelsea defender Matt Miazga.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

Bobby Wood, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are also eligible for the U-23s, but there’s the rub. All three are in good form for country, and only Yedlin isn’t playing well for his club (That’s because Sam Allardyce isn’t using him much at all. His substitute appearance against Liverpool was his first action since Jan. 9).

New England midfielder Lee Nguyen impressed Jurgen Klinsmann during January camp, and it’s hard to ignore the impact of Steve Birnbaum’s goal and assist.

Assuming health, here’s our best guess at who’s making the squad for Guatemala on March 25 and 29. It’s worth noting that six MLS clubs play on March 26 (NYC, New England, Vancouver, Houston, DC and Dallas):

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson

Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Jonathan Spector, Tim Ream

Midfielders: Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Lee Nguyen, Darlington Nagbe

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson

Report: Atletico’s Fernando Torres has interest from MLS, NASL

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - Copa del Rey: Round of 16
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Spanish outlet Marca claims that a number of North American sides are among the clubs chasing Fernando Torres.

The Spanish striker has only scored more than 11 goals once since 2009-10, and is uncapped since 2014. But that doesn’t mean clubs from China to to the U.S. and the UAE to Japan aren’t interested in the 31-year-old.

[ JPW: Recapping the top stories from an intense Premier League weekend ]

The Marca report claims three MLS teams are interested and also name drops the New York Cosmos of the NASL, who’ve recently brought Venezuelan legend Juan Arango on board.

It’s hard to imagine anyone outside the MLS rich sides taking a risk on Torres. Maybe Montreal would look to reunite him with Didier Drogba, and Torres certainly has experience combining with New York City’s David Villa. As for the third… Orlando City? Chicago?

Your guess is as good as ours, though it could be moot if this is solely about money. China continues to spend well.

Difficult fixture run looms as Aston Villa aims for great escape

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - JANUARY 12:  Joleon Lescott of Aston Villa (3L) celebrates with team mates as he scores their first goal with a header during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Crystal Palace at Villa Park on January 12, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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Gabriel Agbonlahor is riding high, as the Premier League Player of the Week broke his duck this weekend and is thinking “great escape” for his Aston Villa side.

Villa has eight points in its last five matches, doubling its season total to 16. That’s still table bottom, but Remi Garde’s bunch would love to see their way out of the drop zone after a brutal start to the season under Tim Sherwood.

What would it take for Villa to pull that off, and avoid the first Premier League relegation in club history?

[ MORE: Premier League Team of the Week ]

Turns out, a lot.

There is no easy match in the next five, and Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are all on the schedule after that.

Villa next five matches
Feb. 14 – vs. Liverpool
Feb. 27 – at Stoke City
March 1 – vs. Everton
March 5 – at Manchester City
March 12 – vs. Spurs

The Villans do have three relegation six-pointers left, and two of those are at Villa Park with Bournemouth and Newcastle United. Villa also heads to Swansea City.

But Villa has to make up 12 points on the Cherries, 11 on Swans and eight on the Magpies. And while they are within two goals difference of Newcastle, they have eight goals to make up on Bournemouth and 11 to make up on Swansea.

That doesn’t include Sunderland and Norwich, sides four and seven points ahead of the Villans (though both have tricky runs left as well).

If Garde’s club is to make its escape, it will be close to unbelievable. That it will close with a match against Arsenal makes it even trickier, but that would be just the final impressive note in what could only be considered a Garde-conducted masterpiece.

VIDEO: Recapping the top stories from an intense Week 25 in the Premier League

JPW at Stamford Bridge
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What a weekend. Let’s relive it.

Round 25 of the Premier League provided plenty more thrills, shocks and excitement as two unlikely title contenders — Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur — are pushing ahead.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Our own Joe Prince-Wright recaps all the major headlines from what could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the Premier League title race.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League news

Click play on the video below to join JPW as he battles the elements and checks in from outside Stamford Bridge in London following Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United.