UCL Preview: Four reasons why fourth game could be different for Barcelona and Atlético

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After 270 minutes, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. Unfortunately, we don’t have much that tells us which side is better, a mild inconvenience when you’re trying to figure out which club is most likely to advance from the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal matchup. Each of their three meetings this season (two in Spain’s Supercopa; one in La Liga) has ended in a draw, with the sides combining for only two goals. Sure, one side could prove clearly better than the other, but there’s nothing in recent history that says that will happen.

Instead, we’re left wondering what, if anything, can keep away goals or penalty kicks from deciding which team advances to Europe’s final four. One day ahead of leg one’s kickoff in Barcelona, there are four possibilities:

1. Lionel Messi is as hot as ever – In the teams’ last meeting, Messi only played 45 minutes, his return in January at the Vicente Calderón marking his first appearance since a thigh injury prematurely ended his 2013. Now fully healthy, Messi has scored in 11 of his last 12 games, accumulating 17 goals along the way. As he showed with three goals in El Clasico, that form’s certainly capable of translating to big games.

(MORE, this weekend: Atlético, Barcelona snare road wins)

source:  2. Atlético has changed things up – In those first three games — 0-0, 1-1, and 0-0 affairs shared between August and January — Diego Simeone started David Villa up top with Diego Costa. In the two August games, Villa actually ended with a higher average position than Costa, who played wide right. In January, however, Villa was farther behind the Atlético number nine, playing alongside Atleti’s midfielders as Simeone crowded the middle of the park.

Now, after the team’s mid-winter slump, Atlético typically starts somebody more suited to that role. Natural midfielder Raúl García has been cast into the starting lineup at Villa’s expense, and while he has often been used as more of a supporting striker than a highly deployed midfielder, Garcíá still brings more of a center-of-the-park mentality to Simeone’s choice XI.

Unfortunately, García is suspended for leg one, a problem exacerbated by the potential absence of Costa. The Brazilian-cum-Spaniard left Monday’s training session with an apparent leg injury. Though Costa had yet to be evaluated by the team’s medical staff by the end of practice, Simeone said it was “unlikely” Costa would play on Tuesday.

Personnel-wise, that means a huge step down. Villa is likely to start up top, while Thiago could join Gabi and Mario Suárez to make a three-man midfield. Or perhaps Uruguayan Cristian Rodríguez will get the call.

Regardless, Atlético will be different. They won’t start two true strikers. But whereas over the last two months that’s been by choice, in Barcelona, it may be by necessity.

(MORE, Barcelona’s path: Win at City | Advance at home)

3. Champions League is different. Right? – I’m not sure how much I believe this will matter, but in the past, when we’ve seen teams face off over 180 minutes (as opposed to 90, as they do in league) the games sure seem to change. Long-term thinking leads to cagier affairs, ones often complicated by the away goals rule. Insert battle versus war analogy here.

There are a few other reasons to believe Champions League, in particular, is different. The stakes are certainly higher, and whereas in Spain Atlético and Barça will get an officiating crew very familiar with each side, Tuesday’s officials hail from Germany.

To whatever extent those things matter, Barcelona will be more familiar with how to deal with them, compounding any differentiating effects that might exist in Champions League.

(MORE, Atlético’s route: Late winner in Milan | Easy day at the Calderón)

source: AP4. Víctor Valdés is out – As Real Madrid’s handling of Iker Casillas has shown, sometimes the effect of a perceived great goalkeeper can be overstated. Very often, good teams have solid options waiting in reserve. It’s not always the end of the world when your number one goes down.

Barcelona’s position, however, may be different. After suffering a torn ACL this weekend, usual number one Víctor Valdés is gone. He’s done for the year, and having declared his intention to leave the club at the end of the season, he may have also played his last minute with Barcelona. This isn’t a case of Barça choosing to try somebody else.

On Tuesday, that somebody else will be 38-year-old José Manuel Pinto, a volatile Copa del Rey specialist who has played only 27 Liga games since joining Barcelona seven years ago. On Tuesday, he will make his seventh Champions League appearance for the Blaugrana, one that will undoubtedly become his most important contribution on the European stage. To date, the only lasting memory he’s crafted in Champions League was being red carded as a reserve against Real Madrid in 2011.

To be certain, he is not the Diego López to Valdés’s Casillas. This is a bigger step down, one which may become more apparent if Costa plays. Sure to seek contact (if not outright entice fouls), the Atlético sniper would tempt the more unpredictable side of the former Celta number one. On Tuesday, Pinto may be spared such temptations.

Beyond Costa’s antics, it will be up to Barça’s possession game to limit Pinto’s exposure. Against an opponent the three-time champions have failed to distinguish themselves from this season, the loss of Valdés could prove particularly important.

Wenger: Sanchez, Giroud will both be with Arsenal next year

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Arsene Wenger thinks Alexis Sanchez will sign a new deal at Arsenal this summer, whether the manager changes or not.

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s visit from Leicester City, Wenger did not offer any clues as to his future with the club. He also said it does not hinge on how the Gunners finish the current campaign, and that he is working on transfers for the benefit of Arsenal regardless of his future.

[ MORE: Will Real open door for Barca? ]

That’s no surprise, given his reputation and fidelity to the club. What may surprise some is Wenger’s confidence that Sanchez will stay at the Emirates Stadium.

From Sky Sports:

“I personally think he will stay and sign. First of all he is happy here, his desire is to stay, that is what I deeply believe.

“I don’t think you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. The question is why would you sell him to another club? You want to be as strong as you can be and not strengthen the other teams.”

Wenger said both sides want to work out a deal and that the hold-up resides in agent-related matters. He also said Arsenal does not have interest in selling Olivier Giroud, who backed Wenger just over a month ago.

Title fight in Spain: Will Real slip up again?

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Barcelona’s dramatic 3-2 win over Real Madrid has set La Liga’s title race on its ear, with both clubs level on points with 75.

Real still controls its own destiny in a bid for its first league title since 2011-12, but a single loss puts Barcelona in pole position for its fourth title in five seasons.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

The tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Lionel Messi lifted from Real with his thrilling stoppage time thriller on Sunday at the Bernabeu.

Here are the run-ins for both sides, with Real facing a more congested schedule thanks to its status as a UEFA Champions League semifinalist.

Real Madrid

Only two of Real’s remaining five La Liga matches are at home, a boon for Barcelona considering Real boasts a strong home mark. The loss to Barca was Real’s first at the Bernabeu this season, and the Merengues only drew three matches at home (Villarreal, Eibar, Atletico Madrid).

Those home matches, however, are against teams that beat Real in the sides’ other league meetings this year, Sevilla and Valencia.

Wednesday – at Deportivo de la Coruna (16th)
Saturday – vs. Valencia (12th)
May 2 – vs. Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 6 – at Granada (19th)
May 10 – at Atletico Madrid (UCL)
May 14 – vs. Sevilla (4th)
May 21 – at Malaga (14th)

Barcelona

Barca is home for three of its remaining five matches. The Blaugranas drew Villarreal and blew out Osasuna and Eibar ahead of the return visits.

As for the road matches, Barca has the Derbi barceloni with Espanyol, having taken the Camp Nou meeting 4-1, as well as a trip to Las Palmas (5-0 at home).

Wednesday – vs. Osasuna (20th)
Saturday – at Espanyol (9th)
May 6 – vs. Villarreal (5th)
May 14 – at Las Palmas (13th)
May 21 – vs. Eibar (8th)
May 27 – vs. Alaves (Copa del Rey Final)

The verdict

Any whiplash Real faces from schedule congestion should be offset by Barcelona’s much tougher schedule. Real could lose again, perhaps versus Sevilla, but Barca will likely finish second thanks to dropped points against Espanyol, Eibar, or Villarreal.

Premier League Weds. preview: Desperation on display

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Two London powers face a race to stay alive for their lofty season goals, while two Northeast sides see their last chances to claim hope for another year in the Premier League.

[ STREAM: All PL games here ]

That’s what’s on the docket for Wednesday’s PL matches, one day after Chelsea buried Southampton 4-2 t0 move seven points clear of Spurs in the race for the league’s 2016-17 crown.

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

No team has looked better than Spurs lately, though Palace won’t be bowed by a big name or good form. Sam Allardyce‘s Eagles boast wins at Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as a home defeat of Arsenal. Those have all come in 2017, as Palace has leapt to within striking distance of the top half.

Spurs need to win at Selhurst Park to keep pace with Chelsea and sit four points back of the No. 1 spot with five matches to play. Lose, concede, and feel like last April all over again. It was a year from Tuesday that Spurs coughed up a home lead to Leicester and saw any hopes of catching Leicester fade into the sunset.

Middlesbrough vs. Sunderland — 2:45 p.m. ET

This Tees-Wear Derby oozes desperation, with Sunderland knowing it needs to win its matches-in-hand on Hull City and Swansea to have any hope of staying up, and Middlesbrough nearly as desperate.

Boro’s 24 points is three more than Sunderland, who has played one less game. Hull sits 17th with 33 points while Swansea holds 31.

Middlesbrough hasn’t won in the Premier League since Dec. 17, a run of 16 matches. Their only wins of the year are over lower league opposition, a trio of victories against Sheffield Wednesday, Accrington Stanley, and Oxford United.

Sunderland has just one league win since that same date in December, and that came at Crystal Palace. The Black Cats have lost six of eight, and look destined to join Boro in the second tier as Northeast neighbors Newcastle comes up.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images )

Arsenal vs. Leicester City — 2:45 p.m. ET

Did Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City snap Arsenal out of its funk, or was it just a matter of Alexis Sanchez’s class squeezing a bit of excellence out of the tube?

Arsene Wenger will hope for the latter, because Arsenal’s Top Four hopes hinge on winning its matches-in-hand on Liverpool and getting significant help from Man City and Manchester United. Their opposition will also be rested, having rested since bowing out of the UEFA Champions League on April 18.

Leicester’s five match winning streak, part of Craig Shakespeare’s new manager bounce, has died down a bit. The Foxes lost at Everton and drew at Palace, and get a third tricky road test in a row at the Emirates Stadium.

Pochettino calls out Xavi for Dele Alli-Man City “lie to lie to lie”

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“He tried to destroy our focus to win because he hates me because he’s Barcelona.”

Even half-kidding, the Derby Barceloni is alive and well for longtime Espanyol man Mauricio Pochettino and Barcelona legend Xavi.

At least that’s why the latter is trying to sabotage the former’s Premier League title fight, Pochettino says.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 4-2 Saints ]

Speaking from his club team in Qatar, Xavi claimed that Manchester City is going to bid high for Spurs’ young star Dele Alli.

Tottenham boss Pochettino says that’s just not true. Pochettino was joking a bit when he answered questions on the topic, but then told a story about Xavi diving for a penalty in the derby. Here are a few of his thoughts, from The Telegraph:

“It wasn’t a penalty but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. After in the replay it was very funny because it was clear no one touched him. Come on! It goes from lie to lie to lie.”

“He is working for Manchester City, maybe? He wants to help Guardiola and [Vincent] Kompany.”