FC Barcelona edge out Manchester City 2-1, as Spaniards reach UEFA Champions League quarterfinal (4-1, agg.)

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FC Barcelona beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Nou Camp on Wednesday, as the Spanish giants won 4-1 on aggregate after a spirited effort from the Citizens.

A brave display from City, especially at the start of the second half, saw Edin Dzeko stopped superbly by Victor Valdes and Pablo Zabaleta spurn another great chance as the Citizens had the home side rocking for a while.

However just when City looked to be on top and were causing the hosts problem, Messi popped up to capitalize on a small mistake from Joleon Lescott and dink the ball past a helpless Joe Hart for his 67th Champions League goal in his 84th appearance, and put Barca 1-0 to the good.

City pushed bravely to get back into the game, but a clear penalty kick was waved away late on after Gerard Pique’s foul on Edin Dzeko and City’s remonstrations saw Pablo Zabaleta sent off for dissent. In the 88th minute City’s superb captain Vincent Kompany poked in an equalizer to make it 1-1, but Barcelona sealed their passage to to the last eight as Dani Alves finished in the 90th minute to make it 2-1.

Barcelona march on to the Champions League quarterfinals, as in the space of a few days City’s hopes of winning an unprecedented quadruple has now diminished into concentrating on the Premier League title to go along with their League Cup success.

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A bright start from City saw the Premier League side pile forward and force the issue against Barcelona, with marauding runs from David Silva and Fernandinho causing plenty of problems. However City’s energetic start was countered by Messi’s clever running, as first Lescott looked to have tripped up the Argentine in the box, but no penalty was given. Then in the 11th minute Messi skipped past two challenges before Joe Hart smothered the ball at his feet and the rebound was scrambled away to safety.

City composed themselves and continued to press high up the pitch to try and stop Barca from dictating the tempo of the game. In the 15th minute the away side got their first look on goal as Aleksandar Kolarov whipped in a delightful ball from the left that James Milner tried to direct goalwards but the ball flew wide with Sergio Aguero lurking. Barcelona then had the ball in the net moments later, but Jordi Alba was adjudged to have strayed offside as his cross was finished off by Neymar but the goal was chalked off for offside. Alba looked to be onside, as City got away with one.

Barcelona were trying to break down City’s stubborn defense who continued to play a dangerously high line on the edge of their own box, but to their credit the Citizens were digging in and trying to create and build attacks of their own as the first half wore on.

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City’s players were demoralized, as their first appearance in the UCL knockout round ended in defeat.

In the 38th minute Kolarov let Neymar get past him but Barca’s Brazilian attacker saw his shot deflected wide as City battened down the hatches before half time. Yet in the 41st minute City  broke and had a great chance to go ahead, as a sumptuous back heel from Silva found Nasri 12-yards out but the Frenchman smashed his volley straight at Valdes as Barcelona’s fans and players breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Just before the interval Neymar took the ball around Hart but City’s ‘keeper followed him to the edge of the box and as the Brazilian winger dinked the ball over his head, Fernandinho headed the ball off the line to keep the score 0-0 at half time. During the interval

After the break City once again took the game to Barca as Silva hit a snapshot straight at Valdes less then a minute into the second half. But then Messi danced past Lescott and slotted his shot past Hart but the ball bounced off the post and City managed to clear as Barcelona came agonizingly close to breaking the deadlock. In the 51st minute Dzeko rose highest to head a clipped ball from Kolarov towards the top corner, but Valdes pulled off a terrific save to tip the ball over the bar. The game continued to ebb and flow, as City searched for a way back into the tie as Barca tried to kill them off. In the 54th minute another great pull back from Kolarov found Zabaleta on the edge of the box but the Argentine player shanked his effort horribly wide as another glorious chance went begging. City continued to make all the pressing in the second half as Barca limped towards the UCL quarterfinals in a less than impressive display. In the 60th minute a great run from Fernandinho saw Yaya Toure find him with a delicate pass and only a last-ditch tackle from Pique thwarted the City man as he broke free in the box.

Despite all that pressing from City, in the 67th minute Messi put the tie beyond doubt. The Argentine superstar scored his eighth goal in five UCL games this season after Cesc Fabregas played a ball through that Lescott somehow failed to clear, then Messi latched onto the loose ball and dinked the ball home calmly to put Barca 1-0 up.

City kept battling away but Barcelona kicked into full possession mode as the Citizens struggled for the remainder of the game. In the 77th minute a pivotal moment arrived as Dzeko dribbled past Pique and was taken down by the Spanish defender in the box for what seemed to be a clear penalty, but referee Stephane Lannoy waved away the appeals of City’s players. Zabaleta took things too far and was shown a second yellow card and given his marching orders.

Barcelona failed to see the game out with a clean sheet as Kompany popped up to equalize in the dying stages to make it 1-1. But, as they so often do, the Catalan club had the last say as Alves smashed home from close range after Andres Iniesta had rounded Hart to compound City’s misery.

LINEUPS

FC Barcelona: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba, Fabregas (Sergi, 85), Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Neymar (Sanchez, 80)

Goals: Messi (67′), Alves (90′)

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Toure, Milner, Silva (Negredo, 72), Nasri (Jesus Navas, 74), Aguero (Dzeko, 45)

Goal: Kompany (88)

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]