FC Barcelona seizes control of Champions League series with 2-0 win over Manchester City

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Manchester City’s hopes of a seminal four-trophy season took a big blow Tuesday, as a bid for the biggest title among them, the UEFA Champions League crown, now looks like one tough, uphill slog.

Leo Messi scored from the penalty spot early in the second half, having created the opportunity himself and put the home team a man down for 35 minutes in a match-turning (most likely even a series turning moment) moment that was quintessential Messi, an arresting dribbling burst.

Dani Alves’ 90th minute goal from a tough angle was certainly significant, too, putting this battle of giants further out of reach for the English club.

Barca’s 2-0 win Tuesday at the Etihad Stadium leaves the La Liga giants well in control of the teams’ Round-of-16 two-leg series.

In fact, this was the match of a Round-of-16 bunch, one that does come stocking stuffed with some other dandies.  Barcelona controlled possession in a match with a “finals” feel, although the Citizens’ tactics were proving prescient for 50 or so minutes, as Manuel Pellegrini’s men made excellent use of the time on the ball they could wrestle from Tuesday’s visitors.

For Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona, criticized recently as the worst side from the Nou Camp in years, this win meant more than seizing control ahead of the return leg back in Spain. Barcelona had just one win in six Champions League matches on the road. Further, Martino’s club was winless in five away matches against English clubs.

Pellegrini raised eyebrows with the choice to deploy Aleksander Kolarov, usually a defender, in the midfield in front of Gael Clichy. Samir Nasri would surely have been the most attack-minded choice, although there are concerns that the French international is not fully fit. Also, the team was in more of a 4-4-1-1 rather than the more standard 4-4-2.

(MORE: What we learned in Barca’s win Tuesday at Manchester City)

Most will excuse Pellegrini if those selections looked slightly on the conservative side – because his tactics did prove correct. While Barca generally held a big edge in possession, real scoring chances were quite few and City goalkeeper Joe Hart was mostly a spectator before the break.

Meanwhile, City refused to be stretched, perhaps occasionally frustrated by the inability to get the ball (or even get close to it, sometimes) but breaking with real authority when gaining control. David Silva found Alvaro Negredo with an early ball right down the middle for City’s first chance, following 18 minutes of almost all Barca possession.

When the home side wasn’t going direct, they aimed crosses for Negredo, generally looking to exploit one of their big edges in this compelling series: in size.

That’s not to say things were all that rotten for Barca, whose ability to keep the ball was a confidence builder and a tactically sound bit of its own, even if it did all look a bit punchless at times.

Messi’s moment broke open the stalemate in the 53rd minute as Barcelona won a ball along its let side. More accurately, City winger Jesus Nevas lost the ball and may have been fouled, although it looked more likely he was attempting to cover for a poor dribbling choice by throwing himself to the ground.

Either way, Andres Iniesta spotted Messi, who had quickly worked himself into the gap between City’s center backs. Iniesta zipped a ball into Messi’s path and the trailing (and slightly out of position) Martin Demichelis, probably the weak link along the Citizens back line, was in big trouble.

When Demichelis lunged in a desperate bid to stop Messi just outside the penalty area, he instead fouled the wily Argentine. The initial contact appeared to take place just inches outside the penalty area, but the result wasn’t just a spot shot – his sending off as the last man on a scoring opportunity left City a man down for more than half an hour.

(MORE: Cesc Fabregas tells world Barca isn’t finished)

Messi’s left-footer from the 12-yard spot went right down the middle, as Hart dove to his left. It was his 66th Champions League goal.

City did offer a reasonable account with just 10 men, creating some bother here and there; Silva’s stinger at the end of a swell City sequence was the best chance, forcing a fine 76th minute save from Victor Valdes. Still, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and the other Barca attackers did more to keep Hart busy at the other end.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany (c), Demichelis, Clichy; Toure, Fernandinho, Navas, Silva, Kolarov; Negredo

Barcelona: Víctor Valdés; Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis Sánchez, Messi, Fabregas

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.

Southgate can see Defoe in England squad long-term

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Gareth Southgate praised Jermain Defoe after his contributions to England’s 2-0 win over Lithuania on Sunday, but accidentally put a condition on his position in the squad.

The 34-year-old scored the opening goal and contributed heavily to the buildup of Jamie Vardy‘s score, and Southgate was happy that his decision to play an in-form striker paid off.

“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be,” Southgate said. “We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact like he did today.

“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form. I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places. The reality is we will always lose players to injury.”

[ MORE: Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery before England game ]

A reporter asked him to clarify why he specified that Defoe should be scoring in the Premier League, and with his club Sunderland under heavy threat of relegation, Southgate admitted he let one slip.

“I walked into that,” Southgate said. “I guess the ideal world for all our players is they are playing regularly at a high level. The flip-side is we don’t have a huge pool of players to pick from.  We have to balance off a few different things. I can’t constrain myself on selection entirely, but I know ideally what I’d like to have. His performances and his goalscoring form this season have counted for him.”

Defoe has 14 goals in 28 Premier League appearances for Sunderland this season, but he’s proved the Black Cats’ only threat as they sit bottom of the league table with 20 points. Defoe has become the center of opposition game plans, and as a result he’s slowed down, with just two goals in his last seven games, and the club has little else to pick up the slack.

Still, at 34 years old, many wonder how much longer Defoe can contribute, and if he’ll be a viable option for next year’s World Cup.

Group F gets messy as Slovakia and Scotland grab wins

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England is in control at the top of Group F, but below them things are beginning to get complicated.

Despite the absence of Marek Hamsik due to a last-minute injury, Slovakia defeated Malta 3-1. They took the lead just 97 seconds in as Vladimir Weiss put the visitors in front with a beautiful curling strike from outside the box. Malta struck back through domestic striker Jean Paul Farrugia in the 14th minute, but that was all Malta could muster.

Slovakia would go ahead just before halftime as FC Copenhagen midfielder Jan Gregus put them in front in the 41st minute. The speculative shot from Gregus came from a great distance out, and as it skipped across the ground, it appeared Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg saw it late, as his dive was poor and it skipped off his hands and in.

Both teams ended with 10 men on the field, as Farrugia was sent off with 16 minutes to go for a second yellow, and Adam Nemec saw the same fate in injury time, but before he was sent off, Nemec was there to kill the game off in the 84th minute.

That put Slovakia up to nine points, and it moved them into second place thanks to late drama in Glasgow. Chris Martin gave Scotland all three points with an 88th minute strike as the home side won 1-0 over Slovenia, who dropped from second to third with the loss. The Fulham striker got a beautiful feed through the back line from Stuart Armstrong, and while his shot wasn’t terribly accurate, it was enough to win the game as Slovenia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik gave it a poor effort.

The win for Scotland pulls them above Lithuania and into fourth, a point back of Slovenia in third.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.