Six-goal romp has Barcelona clicking before Champions League

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Three days out from Barcelona’s trip to Manchester City, Spain’s leaders are starting to look like their former selves. After a winter that saw the Spanish champions temporarily lose their place at the top of the Spanish table, Gerardo Martino’s team seemed more vulnerable than usual. Instead, the Blaugrana were just regrouping.

With today’s 6-0 win over visiting Rayo Vallecano, Barcelona have outscored their last two league opponents 10-1. They’ve reclaimed their lead in La Liga, and with Neymar coming off the bench in the second half, the defending champs have all their stars back. When they visit the Etihad on Tuesday in UEFA Champions League, Barça will finally be at full strength.

As Saturday showed, they’ll also be in form. Within two minutes of kickoff at the Camp Nou, Alexis Sánchez had Barça on the board, continuing what’s been his best season in Spain. Lionel Messi doubled his team’s lead by half time, with second half goals from Sánchez, Pedro, Messi and Neymar leading to the lopsided result. The trio of Messi, Pedro, and Sánchez have now combined for 41 league goals this season.

If you’ve been following our weekly Spain wrap ups, you know this is the type of performance Barcelona’s been missing at times over the league seven weeks. They’ve continued to dominate possession and limit their opponent’s chances, but they’re often unable to translate that dominance onto the scoreboard, leaving opponents within striking distance. It bit them two weeks ago against Valencia. It also cost them in January at Levante and resurfaced during the team’s 2-0 win at home against Real Sociedad in Copa del Rey.

Maybe those are just isolated examples. Even with those down performances, Barcelona’s averaging over three goals per game since December (40 goals, 13 games). Saturday’s six spot, however, took their production to another level. It was the first time since Dec. 11 they’ve scored as many goals and their first victory by six-or-more goals since beating Levante 7-0 in August.

If Barcelona has rekindled that early season form — a level that saw them open the Spanish season with eight straight wins — they’re as ready as they’ll ever be for Manchester City. Though drawing Manuel Pellegrini’s side gives them a semifinal-level challenge in the Round of 16, Martino’s team may be up to it.

Statement from suspended UEFA president Michel Platini

Michel Platini, UEFA & FIFA
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Statement from suspended UEFA President Michel Platini:

Early this afternoon, I was informed of the FIFA ethics committee’s decision to impose on me a provisional 90-day suspension with immediate effect. That decision, which I will of course contest in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time, had already been the subject of a deliberate leak, and I gave my opinion on that earlier in the day.

I reject all of the allegations that have been made against me, which are based on mere semblances and are astonishingly vague. Indeed, the wording of those allegations merely states that a breach of the FIFA Code of Ethics “seems to have been committed” and that a decision on the substance of the matter cannot be taken immediately.

Despite the farcical nature of these events, I refuse to believe that this is a political decision taken in haste in order to taint a lifelong devotee of the game or crush my candidacy for the FIFA presidency.

I want everyone to know my state of mind: more than a sense of injustice or a desire for revenge, I am driven by a profound feeling of staunch defiance. I am more determined than ever to defend myself before the relevant judicial bodies.

I want to reiterate in the strongest possible terms that I will devote myself to ensuring that my good faith prevails. I have received numerous messages of support today from UEFA’s member associations and the other confederations encouraging me to continue my work serving football’s interests. Nothing will make me give up on that commitment.

EURO 2016: Ireland shock Germany, Northern Ireland qualify

Shane Long, Ireland
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A recap of Thursday’s action in 2016 European Championship qualifying:

Ireland 1-0 Germany

Southampton striker Shane Long scored the goal that knocked off the defending world champions and pushed Ireland one step closer to next summer’s European Championship in France. Long, who entered the game in the 65th minute, latched onto Darren Randolph‘s ball over the top in the 70th minute, took one touch to settle and fired for the far post, beating Manuel Neuer for the game’s only goal.

With one game still to play, Ireland (18 points) sit third in Group D, level on points with Sunday’s opponent Poland. While the winner of Sunday’s clash could leapfrog Germany (19), they will more likely finish second in the group and qualify automatically. A draw on Sunday could still see both sides qualify automatically through the ranking of third-place finishers (the top third-place finishers from group play earns an automatic berth at EURO 2016).

Northern Ireland 3-1 Greece

Norther Ireland (20 points) topped Greece (3), 3-1 on Thursday to officially book their place at EURO 2016. Steven Davis scored twice and Josh Magennis added the third for Michael O’Neill’s side.

With one game still to play (Sunday, at Finland), Northern Ireland can finish no lower than second. A draw against Finland, or any points dropped by Romania (17) would see Northern Ireland finish top of Group F.

Portugal 1-0 Denmark

Joao Moutinho scored the only goal of the game to secure Portugal’s (18 points from just seven games) place at next summer’s tournament. The defeat sees Denmark remain second in Group I, a point ahead of third-place Albania, who lost to Serbia on Thursday. Having played all eight of their group games, Denmark can go no higher than 12 points, meaning they would fail to qualify if Albania beat Armenia on Sunday. A draw between Albania and Armenia would see Denmark qualify based on tiebreakers.

Elsewhere in EURO 2016 qualifying action

Group D

Scotland 2-2 Poland
Georgia 4-0 Gibraltar

Group F

Hungary 2-1 Faroe Islands
Romania 1-1 Finland

Group I

Albania 0-2 Serbia