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.

Conte names Gary Cahill new Chelsea captain

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As expected, Gary Cahill has been named Chelsea’s next skipper following the departure of long-time talisman John Terry this summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho rules out speculation of Bale joining Man United ]

While Cahill is no stranger to captaining his side — which he did for much of last season — the honor has been bestowed upon him on a full-time basis now by manager Antonio Conte as Chelsea prepares for the 2017/18 Premier League campaign.

Conte insists though that while Cahill is the man to wear the armband going forward that the rest of the squad’s elder statesman must also take on leadership roles to help guide the club as they pursue back-to-back PL crowns.

“I think also we can have other captains in our team, it could be [Cesar] Azpilicueta, [David] Luiz, and also, in the future, it could be Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas,” Conte told the Evening Standard.

“I think every single player must improve in this [being personalities in the dressing room] and take more responsibility because we lost big players and we need now to find these new players to create this fundamental for Chelsea. It is very important for our future success to create this base.”

Transfer rumor roundup: Man United to swoop for Verratti?

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With the Premier League season lurking, several of England’s top clubs are looking to put the finishing touches on their summer with quality last-minute signings.

Manchester United has been in the market for a holding midfield this transfer window, with Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and Eric Dier of Tottenham long linked to the Red Devils, but now another name could be made available to Jose Mourinho.

Marco Verratti is reportedly growing more and more tired at PSG, and while the Italian does still wish to move to Barcelona this summer, he would be open to signing with United if the Blaugrana don’t come calling.


Chelsea could be closing in on another young Brazilian talent, and Blues will be looking to beat out Man United and others for his services.

Fluminense forward Richarlison is the player of interest, and the Blues are prepared to duel with the Red Devils and AC Milan in order to secure the 20-year-old’s signature.


Meanwhile, Juventus is looking to Liverpool’s Emre Can to help out in the midfield after a strong season for the Reds in the Premier League.

Mourinho rules out speculation of Bale joining United

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Jose Mourinho has certainly done his best to help revamp Manchester United this summer with the additions of Romelu Lukaku and Victor Lindelof, however, one name can be ruled out from joining the Red Devils at this time.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Arnautovic for club-record fee ]

There’s been speculation for some time that Gareth Bale would return to England — and likely to United if he did make a comeback in the Premier League — but the Portuguese boss has slammed the door on those talks.

“The same [as Ronaldo],” Mourinho said when asked about Bale’s availability. “You have contacts and feelings, you understand things, and it was clear that Bale likes Madrid, the challenge and situation.

“They are in a very good situation now and I never felt a desire for him to leave, so why waste time on it? No.”

While Bale — and Cristiano Ronaldo — appear off the radar of Mourinho and Co. for now, the second-year United manager has suggested that he would like one or two more signings to be made available to him heading into the season.

Players like Nemanja Matic of Chelsea and Tottenham’s Eric Dier continue to be linked to the Red Devils, while Ivan Perisic has also been rumored to be closing in on a deal to Old Trafford.

“Names is difficult for me, the players belong to clubs and are in preseason,” he said. “The managers and owners are not happy if players talk about them — I’m the same.

“My plan for the evolution of the team, my second transfer window, was to get four players and get balance and make a better squad.

“But with the development of the market, I was getting the feedback from Mr Woodward and I repeat, the market is very difficult.

“If the club has no chance to give me the four players, I like my group and I go with them, but I still have the hope I can have a third player, and maybe a fourth.”

El Salvador players face bans after biting USMNT’s Altidore, Gonzalez

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While the USMNT booked its place into the Gold Cup final on Saturday night, the team’s quarterfinal opponent was punished for the actions of some of its players.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica ]

The U.S. knocked off El Salvador, 2-0, on Wednesday night, but it was the malice committed by the losers that proved to be so disappointing to watch.

Americans Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez were each bit by El Salvadoran players during the match, with both incidents going unnoticed during live action by the referees.

Henry Romero was given a six-match international ban, while Darwin Ceren of the San Jose Earthquakes was handed a three-match suspension for his role.

According to CONCACAF, the duo will only have to sit out “official matches,” and with El Salvador out of the running for qualification into next summer’s World Cup, the Central Americans will have some down time.