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.

Sydney FC to face Melbourne Victory in A-League final

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SYDNEY (AP) Sydney FC will face the Melbourne Victory in next weekend’s grand final of Australian football’s A-League after the top-ranked teams won contrasting semifinals.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in North London rule, but want more ]

While Sydney was as dominant as it has been throughout a 27-match regular season in its 3-0 win over Perth on Saturday, Melbourne needed a 70th-minute goal from striker Besart Berisha to advance with a 1-0 win Sunday over Brisbane.

Josh Brillante, Jordy Buijs and Filip Holosko scored first-half goals as Sydney continued a seemingly unstoppable drive towards its third A-League title – and its first since 2010. The video referee interceded in two of the goals, making the win contentious, but Sydney still demonstrated superiority over the young, confident and ambitious Perth side.

Sydney lost only once in 27 regular-season matches and will enter the final as a considerable favorite.

Berisha sank the hopes of his former club, Brisbane, with his late strike in Sunday’s second semifinal. While the margin was small, the Victory deserved to win after playing more assertively throughout the match.

Its semifinal victory means that the teams that finished first and second at the end of the regular season will contest the final for the fifth straight year. The final repeats the 2015 showdown between Sydney and Melbourne, which the Victory won 3-0.

Hoffenheim reaches Champions League qualifiers for 1st time

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BERLIN (AP) The youngest coach in the Bundesliga, 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, has steered Hoffenheim to a place in the Champions League qualifiers in the club’s best ever season.

Hoffenheim could even secure its first appearance in the Champions League group stage if it holds on to third place – where it now stands after Benjamin Huebner scored in the last minute to snatch a 1-0 home win over Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday. It has three more matches to play this season.

Huebner’s late goal, a powerful header to Sebastian Rudy’s corner, moved the side one point above Borussia Dortmund, which was held to a scoreless draw at home by Cologne on Saturday.

The goal was scored by the son of Frankfurt sporting director Bruno Huebner.

“A lucky win,” acknowledged Hoffenheim backer Dietmar Hopp, the software billionaire whose finances helped his hometown club progress from minor leagues to the Bundesliga.

A co-founder of the SAP software giant, Hopp became the first private owner of a Bundesliga side when he took a majority stake in Hoffenheim in 2015. By then he had already spent an estimated 350 million euros on the team.

However, Hoffenheim’s best appointment to date appears to be that of Nagelsmann, who took over in February 2016 after Huub Stevens stepped down for health reasons.

Then 28, Nagelsmann hadn’t even earned his coaching credentials from the German football federation (DFB). But he saved the side from relegation and Hoffenheim is enjoying its best ever season this year.

The win over Frankfurt extended its unbeaten run at home to 16 games and ensured it beat its previous best-mark of 55 points from the 2008-09 season.

As a player, Nagelsmann lined up for Bavarian sides Augsburg and 1860 Munich before turning his attention to coaching. He spent almost a decade coaching the youth sides of 1860 Munich and then Hoffenheim, for which he was also assistant coach in 2012-13.

Earlier this year, Nagelsmann was named the German football federation’s coach of the year for 2016.

Dortmund hosts Hoffenheim next weekend for a game that is likely to decide which side goes into the qualifiers and which secures automatic qualification for the Champions League.

AUGSBURG 4, HAMBURGER SV 0

Hamburger SV slipped closer to its first ever relegation in a humiliating defeat at fellow struggler Augsburg.

Hamburg, the last founding member of the league to have played every season since its formation in 1963, was left in the relegation playoff place with three games remaining.

“We’re all affected by the performance we showed today,” Hamburg coach Markus Gisdol said. “We were hoping for something different. But we’ve got over other setbacks before and have to deliver the best in the next game.”

Hamburg goalkeeper Tom Mickel and the left post denied Augsburg early on before Halil Altintop fired the home side ahead, midway through the first half.

Altintop scored another before the break, set up by Philipp Max, to give Augsburg some breathing space.

Michael Gregoritsch reacted with a brutal challenge on Dominik Kohr, for which the Hamburg midfielder was fortunate to escape with a yellow card.

Max sealed the result on a counterattack before setting up Raul Bobadilla to complete the scoring late on.

“We could even have scored more goals,” Augsburg coach Manuel Baum said. “But more than three points wouldn’t have been possible.”

Victory lifted Augsburg out of the relegation playoff place and two points above Hamburg, Wolfsburg and Mainz, all level on 33 points. Hamburg, which has conceded a league-worst 59 goals in 31 games, has an inferior goal difference to the other two.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt occupied the automatic relegation spots. Ingolstadt was four points behind Hamburg, while Darmstadt was all but doomed, nine points behind.

Balotelli, Nice may have spoiled PSG’s title chances

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Monaco took care of business at the top of Ligue 1 on Saturday and now the Champions League semifinalists could be closing in on France’s crown.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in ruling North London, but want more ]

Paris Saint-Germain slipped up on Sunday with a 3-1 loss against third-place Nice, and it could spell the end for the Parisians’ hopes of winning Ligue 1 in 2016/17.

Mario Balotelli sprung Nice in front after 26 minutes with a curling left-footed effort from outside the box, before Ricardo Pereira doubled the advantage for the hosts just three minutes into the second stanza with a lovely curler of his own.

PSG managed to pull a goal back in the 64th minute as Marquinhos gave the visitors a glimmer of hope to keep their title hopes alive.

However, the final minutes of the match took a drastic turn for the worse for PSG as Thiago Motta and Angel di Maria were both shown red cards for violent tackles on Nice players.

Nice also found a third finish after PSG was dwindled down to nine men when Anastasios Donis headed home a lofted cross from the left wing.

With three matches remaining for PSG, Unai Emery’s side sits three points behind league leaders Monaco, who also have a match in hand. PSG finishes up their Ligue 1 account with matches against Bastia, St Etienne and Caen.

Video: Camilo Sanvezzo scores wonder goal for Queretaro

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Camilo Sanvezzo scored two goals on Sunday for Queretaro but many won’t even remember the score of the game after his brilliant first effort.

The Queretaro forward scored the first of two finishes in the 66th minute after winning the ball in his own half, carrying it into the Toluca end and unleashing a deadly shot from just inside midfield.

Sanvezzo eventually scored his side’s second goal in the dying minutes of the match, and his 88th minute finish proved to be the winner for Queretaro, who currently sit 13th in Liga MX.

The 28-year-old should be familiar to MLS fans after Sanvezzo’s time with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2011 to 2013. The veteran scored 39 goals in 92 matches with the Canadian side.