Copa del Rey: Barcelona rebounds to take two-goal lead on Real Sociedad

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Barcelona used their Copa del Rey semifinal to get back in the win column, but in the process of posting a win over Real Sociedad, the Blaugrana failed to quell linger doubts. Needing an own goal and an Iñigo Martínez red card on their way to a 2-0 result at the Nou Camp, Barça eventually claimed a commanding lead after leg one, even if La Real nearly snatched a lead just before halftime. For a team that plays as much to a standard as against an opponent, Wednesday’s performance was a mixed result.

Their victory was secured just before half time when Sergio Busquets gave Barcelona a 44th minute lead – a score that sparked protests that led to Martínez’s dismissal. Moments earlier, Real forward Carlos Vela had come close to scoring but was obstructed by Javier Mascherano penalty in Barcelona’s penalty area. Though Vela still got a shot off (one that drew a kick save from Pinto), Sociedad players were left incredulous at the lack of a whistle. The missed opportunity appeared close to Martínez’s mind when Busquets put them behind two minutes later.

After a half playing against 10 men, Barcelona statistical edges were gaudy. They kept 81 percent of the ball, held La Real  to one shot on goal, and finished with +23 advantage in overall shots (26-3). Against a Sociedad team already set up to play on the counter, Barcelona went the match’s final 47 minutes without allowing a shot.

Despite those advantages, the only goal Barça was able to find in the second half required Real Sociedad’s help. Attempting to clear a ball Alexis Sánchez put off his team’s post, midfielder Gorka Elustondo hit Zubikarai in the back, the resulting ball ending up Sociedad’s goal. Up 2-0 after an hour, Barcelona would cruise through the rest of the game, outshooting Sociedad 7-0 over the final 30 minutes.

Up two and having preventing La Real from finding an away goal, Barcelona will be heavy favorites to reach Copa’s final next week in San Sebastián. In the bigger picture, there were enough minor issues to fuel ongoing (if minor) questions about the Blaugrana. Though they nearly went up through Lionel Messi early, Barcelona also left the door open for Real Sociedad to strike first, something they nearly did just before half time. Though Barça eventually broke through, they also failed to put the tie away after playing a man up over the final 56 minutes. They finished the match with a valuable two-goal lead, but the second goal came after some freakish fortune.

All teams have their off days, but for Barcelona, this off day comes on the heals of a loss to Valencia. At a time in the season when Gerardo Martino’s team should be building for challenges from Manchester City (Champions League), Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid (Copa and league), Barcelona has lost some of their mojo.

They’re still outplaying most of their opponents, but they’re not meeting the standards we typically associate with Barcelona soccer. Until they can ascend to that level, it’s unclear Barcelona can be considered favorites to claim any of the honors they’re pursuing. Martino’s still got work to do

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

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“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.

Morata signs five-year contract at Chelsea

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Chelsea FC will have another Spanish international leading the front line, with Diego Costa likely on his way out of town.

The club announced that Alvaro Morata has completed a transfer from Real Madrid, signing a five-year contract at Stamford Bridge. The BBC reports the transfer fee at nearly $78 million.

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“I am so happy to be here,” Morata said in a statement. “It’s an incredible emotion to be part of this big club. I am looking to work hard, score as many goals as I can and to win as many trophies as possible.”

Morata emerged as an option to replace Costa after Romelu Lukaku decided on joining Manchester United over his former club Chelsea. Morata, who was a Manchester United target at first, then turned his sights on London after becoming disillusioned in Madrid, playing second-fiddle to Karim Benzema.

Despite not being first-choice up top, Morata scored 15 goals in 26 La Liga games and another three in the UEFA Champions League, which Real Madrid went on to win over Morata’s former club Juventus. Morata started for Juventus the last time the club had been in the Champions League final.

Despite being just 24, Morata is emerging as one of the world’s top forwards. He has nine goals in 19 games for the Spanish National Team and now is the right time for him to experience the challenge of the Premier League, where the games come thick and fast and the pace of the game is a step up from what he’s experienced in Spain and Italy.

However, the tactical knowledge he’s learned in both places should help him in England, where he can position himself between the opposing centerbacks.