Is Leo Messi really set to leave Barcelona?

Preview: Barcelona, Manchester City stumble into Champions League second leg; PSG set to rest Ibrahimovic

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Manchester City’s draw against Barcelona in UEFA Champions League promised to give us a semifinal matchup in the tournament’s first knockout round, but after shock weekend losses, both titans find themselves limping into their tie’s second leg. Against a club battling to avoid relegation from La Liga (Real Valladolid), Barça lost 1-0 on Saturday, an indignity that pushed them into third in Spain. Manchester City somehow managed to do their Wednesday opponents one worse, losing 2-1 at home to second division Wigan Athletic in England’s FA Cup. Where at one time this meeting could have been the leaders of the world’s two best leagues, today’s second leg will feature Spain’s third-place team against a club that sits fourth in the Premier League.

That fourth place team, who’ll start Wednesday’s second leg with a two-goal deficit, will also be without their manager. Manuel Pellegrini begins a suspension incurred after criticizing officials in the wake of City’s 2-0 loss to Barça at the Emirates, one which puts leaves assistant coach Rubén Cousillas in charge. The 56-year-old Argentine, who has been with Pellegrini since the Chilean’s days coaching in South America, is tasked with not only making history in Catalonia but also moving the Citizens past an embarrassing Sunday result.

“We had a big sense of frustration because we wanted to be back at Wembley and win another cup,” Cousillas said, “but Wigan surprised us. We have turned the page and we have experienced and quality players, which means we are more united than ever and we have forgotten everything in preparation for tomorrow.”

Barcelona will need a similarly faulty memory to regain their confidence before kickoff on Wednesday. Whereas City can assuage themselves with having lost to the same team that beat them in last year’s FA Cup, Barça’s loss at Real Valladolid is less explicable. Shut out against a team that had not won in five games, Gerardo Martino suffered his second loss in three. While its +52 goal difference is still the top mark in the Primera Division, a third place standing is the lowest Barcelona has sat since the opening days of the Pep Guardiola era.

“After the match in Valladolid, I said we made mistakes but under different circumstances – because all our defeats this season have been different,” Martino explained. “There’s not a specific reason for us being inconsistent. We need to be more consistent at this stage of the season to maintain our chances of winning all three competitions.”

That need for improvement underscores a heightened urgency for Barcelona. Though they are unlikely to give up their two-goal leads to City, they are less than two weeks away from the season’s second Clasico – one they can’t afford to lose if they’re going to retain their La Liga title. Already four points behind first place Real Madrid, Barcelona have 180 minutes to raise their game before entering the Santiago Bernábeu.

Though they were missing midfield star Andrés Iniesta this weekend, against Manchester City, there’ll be no excuses. Both Lionel Messi and Neymar are fully fit. Xavi Hernández is ready to play in midfield. UEFA reports no injuries to Martino’s regulars along the back. Though Barcelona can claim Real Valladolid surprised them on Saturday, it won’t be able to use similar excuses on Wednesday.

“We have to think that 10 or 12 days ago,” Martino explained, “we played a very good match against Manchester City. I don’t see why we can’t do the same tomorrow and I’m sure we will play well.”

City is not as quite healthy as their hosts. In addition to Pellegrini’s loss, the Citizens will be without Martín Demechilis (suspended) and backup Matija Nastasic, leaving Joleon Lescott to start to the left of Vincent Kompany in City’s defense.

The rest of the team — from leading goal threat Sergio Aguero up top to former Barcelona defensive midfielder Yaya Touré in the middle — will be laid out according to Pellegrini’s plans, even if the Manchester City boss will be in the stands.

“The decisions are taken by Pellegrini,” Cousillas confirmed. “I have worked with him for 13 years and I know what he wants.”

What he truly wants may be out of Cousillas’s reach. Down two goals, Manchester City will be looking to make history in Spain, not only hoping to reach their first quarterfinal but also trying to become the first team to turn around a two-goal deficit incurred at home.

Barcelona’s recent results say City may be catching it at the right time, but the Citizens will have to shake off disappointment of their own if they’re to survive in Champions League.

source: APParis Saint-Germain try to kill off wounded Bayer Leverkusen

PSG’s matchup with Bayer Leverkusen joins Real Madrid’s pairing with Schalke as the most lopsided battles in the competition’s Round of 16. Whereas PSG put up a 4-0 win three weeks ago at the BayArena, all but eliminating Sami Hyypia’s team before they’d boarded their plane for Paris, Real Madrid posted a 6-1 victory in Gelsenkirchen. The German Bundesliga may be an up-and-coming league, but last year’s third and fourth place finishers are having trouble keeping pace with the league’s new reputation.

What that means for Champions League fans is a second, perfunctory 90 minutes in at the Parc de Princes, one that’s unlikely to feature PSG star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The main reason for watching today’s return leg is set to be held out of the team, with head coach Laurent Blanc sounding a cautious note about his focal point’s back injury ahead of the match. Likewise, Blaise Matuidi — a midfielder who nearly rivaled Ibrahimovic’s influence in Germany — is also unlikely to be held out, with Marco Veratti, Gregory van der Wiel, and Jérémy Menez joining him as doubts.

All of which would spark worry from Bayer Leverkusen if the score was closer. Even then, Bayer would have to have shown something more than one point in six games leading into Wednesday’s match – form that’s seen them relinquish second place in the Bundesliga. Only five points ahead of fifth place Wolfsburg, Bayer now have concerns about whether they can maintain a Champions League spot, especially with their annual trip to Bayern looming on Saturday.

“The team needs to build confidence and self-belief, and one way to do so could be with a good performance here.,” Hyypia explained. “The most important thing is we need to find some stability defensively, especially now that we’re going through difficult times.”

With PSG set to take a cautious approach, Bayer may get their reprieve. That doesn’t necessarily mean their winless run will stop.

Bundesliga will be ready to use video review next season

Referee Felix Zwayer shows the red card to Leipzig's Emil Forsberg during the German Bundesliga soccer match between FC Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig at the Allianz Arena stadium in Munich, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) The Bundesliga says it will be ready to use video review next season.

[ MORE: Fonte’s strange situation ]

FIFA’s rules making panel, known as IFAB, is working with leagues to introduce Video Assistant Referees (VARs) ahead of likely approval for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

FIFA wants video review only for potential “clear errors” in four situations: Goals being scored, penalties being awarded, players being sent off, and cases of mistaken identity.

[ MORE: Latest Bundesliga news

IFAB should decide early next year on using VARs at the World Cup.

Germany’s top league kicks off next season in August.

A Bundesliga statement says it opted for a system “where all VARs will be assembled at a single location on the day of play,” as the NBA and MLB use.

In Russia, FIFA could opt for VARs working at the stadium as part of each referee’s support team.

Premier League Power Rankings – Week 21

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The latest Premier League player Power Rankings are here and we have a new man on top.

Players from Tottenham and Chelsea dominate the list, plus there are plenty of new entries from across the league. In the video above I break down the reasons for picking my top five.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Harry Kane (Tottenham) – Up 11
  2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Man United) – Even
  3. Dele Alli (Tottenham) – Down 2
  4. Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) – Up 4
  5. Michail Antonio (West Ham) – New entry
  6. Olivier Giroud (Arsenal) – New entry
  7. Adam Lallana (Liverpool) – Down 1
  8. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) – New entry
  9. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham) – Even
  10. Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea) – Even
  11. Kyle Walker (Tottenham) – New entry
  12. Danny Rose (Tottenham) – New entry
  13. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Down 1
  14. Marcos Alonso (Chelsea) – New entry
  15. Abel Hernandez (Hull City) – New entry
  16. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City) – New entry
  17. Romelu Lukaku (Everton) – New entry
  18. Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham) – New entry
  19. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham) – Down 1
  20. Tom Heaton (Burnley) – New entry

Strange Fonte situation nears end as West Ham close in

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  Jose Fonte of Southampton celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Arsenal at St Mary's Stadium on December 26, 2015 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)
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Jose Fonte was linked with moves to Manchester United and Liverpool throughout the summer transfer window and for most of the January window.

Now a move to West Ham or West Bromwich Albion seems more likely.

[ MORE: Vertonghen injury update ]

Multiple outlets are reporting that Fonte, 33, has agreed terms with the two Premier League clubs, while West Ham are believed to be in the driving seat for Southampton’s skipper who they will pay $11 million for.

Fonte, who has been with Saints since 2010, handed in a transfer request earlier this month and is unavailable for selection until he is either sold by Southampton or the transfer window closes without him leaving.

The latter does not look likely, even if West Ham manager Slaven Bilic refused to comment specifically on Fonte in his press conference on Thursday. If the move to the Hammers does go through then it would end a strange, and sad, final chapter in Fonte’s career at St Mary’s.

He joined Saints in the third-tier in January 2010 and the center back is the only player remaining from their League One days. In seven years he has risen with Southampton and has become one of the most reliable center backs in the PL, plus got his chance with the Portuguese national team and started every game in the knockout stage as Portugal won EURO 2016 this summer.

After that triumph Fonte’s head seemed to have been turned and with his new agent Jorge Mendes (the same “super agent” who looks after Fonte’s compatriots Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho) he seemed to be eyeing a move away.

[ LONGFORM: Jose Fonte, baby ]

I was at a preseason game for Saints against Espanyol in August where Fonte turned up late (he had arrived late for preseason after his summer exploits with Portugal) and all of Southampton’s fans stood on their feet to applaud him for his success with Portugal at EURO 2016 and chanted for him to stay at St Mary’s. He rather sheepishly gave a wave but it all looked rather staged. It just didn’t feel right and there was no real surprise that the rumors about him leaving didn’t end until the end of the summer transfer window.

No clubs seemed too interested in taking him from Saints and anyway he had 18 months to run on his current, plus Southampton offered him a one-year extension and a pay raise without him even asking.

Fonte, for some reason, declined that offer and ever since then then there have been reports about him being a negative influence in the locker room and despite his play on the field not dropping dramatically he has put out cryptic message on Instagram, plus he didn’t play a single second of Southampton’s landmark UEFA Europa League group stage campaign for unknown reasons.

This situation is really nothing to do with current manager Claude Puel. He is caught in the middle and Executive director of football Les Reed finally came out and spoke about Fonte’s future two weeks ago as he revealed the Portuguese defender wanted out.

The way this has ended is messy for everyone involved but what more can Saints do?

They have a player who is adored by the fans after rising with them from the lower leagues to a sixth-place finish and European action. He is the captain of the club but is refusing to sign a new deal and has told them he wants to leave. Out of respect for Fonte, Saints will let any reasonable offer take him away from St Mary’s. Yet, it didn’t have to end like this.

If Fonte does go to West Ham, he may get an increase in his wages for the final few years of his career but then what? He would’ve had a job for life at Southampton had he played out the remaining 18 months of his current deal or then extended it for another season to take him towards the age of 36.

This whole situation seems very strange and for everyone involved some sort of explanation would help with wading through the mess if Fonte does leave Southampton, as expected, in the coming days. It is unlikely Fonte had West Ham or West Brom near the top of his ideal destinations when he made it clear he wanted to leave Saints. Now, those are the options awaiting him. Maybe he saw so many of his former teammates leave Saints and go on to better things (look at Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Morgan Schneiderlin, Sadio Mane et al.) and fancied some of that following his success with Portugal in the summer.

No disrespect to Fonte but a veteran center back from Saints is hardly as enticing as the likes of Lallana and Mane were in summers gone by.

Amid the current situations regarding Dimitri Payet and Diego Costa in the Premier League, this one involving Fonte and Southampton has somewhat flown under the radar. It shouldn’t have. Serious questions need to be asked about what the heck has been going on.

Survivors gather as Chapecoense plays first game since fatal crash

CHAPECO, BRAZIL - DECEMBER 03:  Relatives of the members of Brazilian team Chapecoense Real pay  tribute at the club's Arena Conda stadium in Chapeco, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, on December 03, 2016. The players were killed in a plane accident in the Colombian mountains. Players of the Chapecoense team were among the 77 people on board the doomed flight that crashed into mountains in northwestern Colombia. Officials said just six people were thought to have survived, including three of the players. Chapecoense had risen from obscurity to make it to the Copa Sudamericana finals scheduled for Wednesday against Atletico Nacional of Colombia.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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CHAPECO, Brazil (AP) Slowly and steadily, Rafael Henzel will climb into the cramped space to broadcast Saturday’s friendly match for Brazilian club Chapecoense, the first since nearly the entire team was killed in an air crash almost two months ago.

Only six of the 77 passengers survived – and Henzel was one of them.

“The stairway at the Arena Conda is very steep, but I have extra motivation to be in that stadium again and see players wearing our shirt, the fans. It won’t be that stairway that will stop me,” Henzel told The Associated Press after his morning show on radio Oeste Capital.

Henzel has worked at Chapecoense matches since 2012, and is the voice of the team from the remote, southern Brazilian city of Chapeco. After 20 days in a hospital, seven broken ribs, multiple scars – one over his right eye- and worrisome pneumonia, Henzel went back to work at the radio station just over a week ago.

Now he’s making his second return – what he calls “Rafael 2.0” – in the match against Brazilian league champion Palmeiras, preparing to once again get behind the microphone at the tiny stadium.

His left foot is in a cast, but that won’t stop him.

“When I woke up at the crash site, I became aware of what had happened,” he said, recalling the crash. “Initially, I thought I was dreaming but then, shortly after, you start to realize that the plane had crashed.”

Three Chapecoense players survived – 19 were killed – when the plane slammed into the Andes mountains as it headed to the city of Medellin to face Colombian team Atletico Nacional in the Copa Sudamericana final – the No. 2 club tournament in South America.

All three hope to play again, in one fashion or another. And all three are expected for Chape’s debut on Saturday.

Defender Neto, who spent more than 10 hours in the plane wreckage before being rescued, recently took his first steps without support.

He’s already visited the club and will be an inspiration for Chape’s new players in a busy season. Their 2017 commitments include defending their title in the Santa Catarina state league, keeping the team up in Brazil’s first division, playing for the first time in the prestigious Copa Libertadores – the continent’s No. 1 tournament – and fundraising in a pile of friendlies, including one against Barcelona.

“If I didn’t believe I could recover, I will get depressed,” Neto told reporters. “Doctors said I might return this year, but I don’t know whether my knees are still up for it,” Neto said in a press conference. “I will be here to give support to the players that come. It’s not easy to represent all those who died, but I want to be fit to play so I can be more than a symbol. I want to make a real contribution.”

Winger Alan Ruschel is the player in best shape for a return. He expects to be back within six months, but no doctor says it will definitely happen.

“I will do all that I can to play again, and I will be patient to get there,” Ruschel said. In tears, he said he has no recollection of the accident.

“I was in the front seats, then I changed with a friend of ours that is now gone,” he said. “I am pretty sure that that made me survive, because our goalkeeper Jakson Follmann was next to me and he also escaped. It was Follmann who told me to sit next to him, so I guess he also saved my life. I will have to live with this feeling forever.”

Goalie Follmann will not play for Chape again. He had part of his right leg amputated and is still going through minor surgery. He is considering becoming a Paralympian and a member of Chape’s staff.

The goalie has avoided talking about the future, but is not as gloomy as many about his current state.

“I choose life over the leg,” he told doctors during his recovery. “We will manage this easily.”

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese .His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mauricio-savarese