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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.

VIDEO: PL Download on Arsene Wenger’s 20-year anniversary at Arsenal

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This is a must-watch for any fan of the Premier League.

On Oct. 1 1996, Arsene Wenger arrived as Arsenal’s new manager as a virtual nobody. This Saturday he celebrates 20 years in charge of the Gunners and there is a special Premier League Download to celebrate his incredible longevity.

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At 12:30 p.m. ET, this Saturday, Oct. 1, NBCSN presents a new Premier League Download: Inside the Mind of Arsene Wenger, hosted by The Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett.

Watch the promo above to get a taste of what’s to come in the full episode, as Bennett traveled to London to interview Wenger on his legacy, philosophy as a manager, and more.

PL stars Rashford, Alli, Iheanacho on nominees list for 2016 Golden Boy award

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10:  Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates his goal during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur at Britannia Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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The end of 2016 is quickly approaching, which means it’s nearly time to hand out a bunch of awards to players who performed exceptionally well over two halves of two completely different seasons during the calendar year.

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While we already know one of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will likely take home the Ballon d’Or for a ninth straight year, the field is much larger and wide open for the 2016 Golden Boy award, which goes to the best player under the age of 21 currently plying his trade in Europe.

Headlining the list of 40 nominees are 10 players currently contracted to Premier League clubs, including the likes of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli, and Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho.

The full list of nominees:

Dele Alli (Tottenham), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid), Leon Bailey (Genk), Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax), Gabriel Boschilia (Monaco), Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen), Carlos Fernandez (Sevilla), Andreas Christensen (Borussia Monchengladbach), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Ante Coric (Dinamo Zagreb), Amadou Diawara (Napoli), Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Monchengladbach), Danilo Barbosa (Benfica), Moussa Dembele (Celtic), Ousmane Dembele (Dortmund), Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan), Breel Embolo (Schalke), Gabriel Barbosa (Internazionale), Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow), Goncalo Guedes (Benfica), Demarai Gray (Leicester), Marko Grujic (Liverpool), Alen Halilovic (Hamburg), Kelechi Iheanacho (Manchester City), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea), Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid), Emanuel Mammana (Lyon), Nathan (Vitesse), Olivier Ntcham (Genoa), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich), Jairo Riedewald (Ajax), Ruben Neves (Porto), Tonny Sanabria (Real Betis), Leroy Sane (Manchester City), Jonathan Tah (Bayer Leverkusen), Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht), Almamy Toure (Monaco)

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

The last five winners of the Golden Boy award reads as such: Anthony Martial, Raheem Sterling, Paul Pogba, Isco and Mario Gotze. While that’s a not-so-bad list to potentially join, the three winners before them: Mario Balotelli, Alexandre Pato and Anderson. So, it’s a less-than-perfect gauge for the trajectory of a player’s career. Although, some guys named Sergio Aguero, Cesc Fabregas, Messi, Wayne Rooney and Rafael van der Vaart took home the first five awards.

Howe calls England “the ultimate job,” says he’s “committed” to B’mouth

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20: Eddie Howe, Manager of AFC Bournemouth looks on  during the EFL Cup Third Round match between AFC Bournemouth and Preston North End at Goldsands Stadium on September 20, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Eddie Howe makes no bones about the fact he aspires to one day manage the English national team — one day.

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That day is not today, however, according to the 38-year-old Bournemouth boss, whose name was one of the first, and most frequent, linked with the now-vacant England post after the abrupt dismissal of Sam Allardyce earlier this week.

Speaking Thursday, ahead of his side’s Premier League clash with Watford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), Howe all but excused himself from consideration for the job — this time around, at least. He said England is still “the ultimate job,” presumably for English managers, but reaffirmed his commitment and focus on the job at hand: his beloved Cherries — quotes from the Guardian:

“I’m absolutely committed here. Nothing has changed from the summer. They haven’t come to me and my message is very similar. I am committed here, I love the job. The England job is the ultimate job. I have signed players very recently and I am committed to them. I need to show them the same loyalty that they showed me. It’s all hypothetical. It’s not been a great week for football. It’s not ideal the England situation has come up again but I won’t get distracted.”

If we are to now cross Howe’s name off the listAlan Pardew made comments similar to those of Howe this week — that leaves the likes of Steve Bruce and Harry Redknapp as potential permanent replacements. Gareth Southgate has been handed the job on an interim basis, and will undoubtedly be auditioning for the full-time job when he leads the Three Lions into their final four games of 2016 in October and November.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Man United soar; City still the standard ]

At this point, nearly two months into the European club season, it’s probably in England’s best interest to stick with Southgate for until next summer at the earliest. None of the currently available names inspire any level of confidence or excitement, which is fine, because you and/or I could steer England to a top-two finish in a 2018 World Cup qualifying group that also includes Scotland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania and Malta.

Steer clear, Eddie Howe. The England job will be open again in 20 months’ time, then again 24 or 48 months after that, and 24 or 48 months after that, and so on forever and ever.

Liverpool to postpone further Anfield expansion after fan protest

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: General view of the new stand during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on September 10, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Liverpool owner John Henry says fan protests against ticket prices are causing the club to reassess plans to further redevelop Anfield.

Henry’s Fenway Sports Group apologized to fans earlier this year and reversed planned rises in ticket prices after a walkout during a game.

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But having funded the redevelopment of Liverpool’s main stand over the last year, the next phase of the expansion program might not make economic sense if the club can’t recoup the construction cost. The Anfield Road stand had been next in line for rebuilding at the 54,000-capacity Anfield.

“I don’t know if there is a next step because ticket prices are an issue in England,” Henry said. “That may foreclose further expansion. We’ll have to see.”

Henry was speaking Tuesday at Yankee Stadium where his baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, was playing the New York Yankees.

Liverpool has opened its first full season with Juergen Klopp in charge by winning four of its six Premier League games. The German signed a contract extension in July through 2022.

[ MORE: PL power rankings — Liverpool fall, through no fault of their own ]

“He was a perfect fit for Liverpool, for the culture of the club, for the supporters, for the kind of team that we were trying to build,” Henry said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better fit.”

With no European matches this season, Liverpool is chasing a top-four finish to return to the Champions League.

From the 2018-19 season, entry into the Champions League group stage is easier for English clubs with the Premier League’s fourth-place team no longer having to go through a playoff.

The “market pool” system, which steers UEFA prize money to clubs in England, Germany, and Italy, where the broadcasting deals are bigger, will be changed to reward better historical results in the competition. That should help Liverpool as a five-time European champion but see income drop for Manchester City, which has never won the continent’s top prize.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s Champions League roundup | Wednesday ]

The Champions League changes were agreed by a small number of club officials and UEFA, with the rest of Europe not knowing the outcome until the announcement in August.

Henry said he was aware of other teams in England “obviously not happy with the UEFA deal.”

“The changes weren’t really discussed with us, they were implemented essentially. They unilaterally made changes to the market pool and there should have been I think more discussion. But I can tell you that the (Premier League) owners were not happy … at least among the clubs that I speak with.”

AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.