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Three things we learned from Atlético Madrid’s draw in Barcelona

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The teams’ fourth meeting of the season ended the same as the first three, but we were better for it. Another perfectly balanced game between Barcelona and Atlético Mardid ended 1-1 today at the Nou Camp, and while that road may yet loom large, today’s game was another example of how perfectly matched these two teams have become.

After a scoreless first half that saw Gerard Piqué and Diego Costa leave with leg injuries, a long distance blast into the upper-right hand corner from substitute Diego game Atleti that precious away goal. Fifteen minutes later, brilliant work from Andrés Iniesta and Neymar produced a goal from the Brazilian, a tally the Blaugrana were unable to build on over the last 20 minutes.

(MORE: Diego, Neymar goals leave Atlético, Barcelona even after leg one)

Here are three things we learned from the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal:

1. It’s about more than the stars … until it’s not – When an apparent leg injury forced Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué from the game in the 12th minute, an Atlético team that got a surprise start from forward Diego Costa looked to have a huge edge. But 18 minutes later, Atleti’s star striker was limping off, too, leaving Diego Simeone with his third (David Villa) and fourth (Diego) choice options leading his attack.

Though the game lost two of its most talented players, it was no worse for it. In fact, Tuesday’s contest was indistinguishable from the combative and enthralling games that characterized the teams’ first three battles. When Diego’s early second half blast found Pinto’s upper-left hand corner from distance, you could argue the game was actually (if unintentionally) better for losing two stars.

Then came the reminder of what stardom can do. Sure, Atlético right back Juanfran may have been caught a step out of position on Barcelona’s equalizer, but it took a sublime pass from Andrés Iniesta to exploit that crack. Neymar pounced and put an inch perfect shot around Thibault Courtois. It was going to take two of the world’s most talented players to break down Atlético. For one brief moment, they managed to do so.

Barcelona and Simeone’s Atlético have developed such distinct identities, it would take more than two injuries for them to change. But part of that identity is the brilliance of their players. And there are few more brilliant than Andrés Iniesta.

(MORE: Three things we learned from Manchester United and Bayern Munich’s draw)

source: AP2. Clearly, Atlético’s going nowhere – You can understand why people don’t want to believe in Atlético, but at this point, there’s no reason to think this team can’t compete with Europe’s best. They’ve been doing so ever since Diego Simeone came on board.

Earlier this year, the doubt was understandable. Small sample, and such. Combine that with the team’s recent track record, the names in the squad, and the lack of day-to-day coverage La Liga gets around these parts (let’s face it: it’s still Barcelona, Real Madrid, and who? as attention spans go), and the idea that Atlético’s a fluke has been allowed to persist. Sure, they drew Barcelona three times this year, but Champions League would be different, right?

For those not watching Manchester United-Bayern Munich, we saw how serious Barcelona has been. And in the 360 minutes Gerardo Martino’s team has played against Atlético, the team’s led for none of them. It’s not just that Atlético has been competing in these games. They’ve been the closer side to wining them (well, two of them).

We’ve seen enough by now to know Atleti are for real. Even people who don’t follow the Spanish league can buy in. Now it’s a question of whether “for real” translates into “Champions League semifinalist.”

(MORE: Brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid has begun to transcend results)

3. We need to stop and smell these roses – The longer this battle goes, the more amazing it becomes. Barcelona and Atlético, so perfectly matched, are slated to play six games this season. But whereas in previous seasons, when Barça and Real Madrid engaged in a seemingly endless series of Clasicos, it’s hard to get enough of Atlético and Barcelona.

From earlier today:

It’s the perfect match of opposing styles. It’s soccer’s yin against football’s yang. It’s modernism, possession, and technique matched against timeless emotion and organization. It’s a team that looks beyond the typical trappings of athleticism and brawn facing a side that leverages their power to complement their passion. From the same league, both sporting Argentine coaches, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid couldn’t be more different, yet, after each set of 90 minutes they play, the scoresheet’s left them beautifully identical.

It’s a contrast makes results like today’s 1-1 special – more valuable than a win could have been for either side. Because at this point, a victory would defeat the purchase. The battle’s balance of physique, application, and philosophy has produced some of the best soccer of our lifetimes: what’s become a 360-minute marathon, where each side has brought evermore perfect free soccer out of the other.

We’ll see it again next week, we’ll see it again on the last day of the Spanish season, and if we’re lucky, we might get two more draws. but after these teams change this summer, the balance will be thrown off. Savior this time we have with Atlético and Barcelona.

Klopp hopes for speedy solution in club, fans’ ticket-price dispute

Liverpool's fans wave flags during the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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From his time at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp is used to a much more positive, family-like, everyone-pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere at his club of employment, so the present goings-on at Liverpool understandably have the Reds’ first-year manager feeling more than a little uneasy.

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Saturday’s late 2-2 draw with Sunderland wasn’t the first time Liverpool fans have headed for the exit before the final whistle, leaving Klopp feeling all alone, but it was the first time the fans have departed from Anfield early in a pre-planned, organized manner (Klopp missed the game himself with appendicitis). The Anfield faithful didn’t walk out on 77 minutes due to their team’s poor performance — Liverpool were 2-0 ahead at the time — but in protest of steadily rising ticket prices, which were unveiled at $111 per game to sit in the 132-year-old stadium’s new main stand next season.

Klopp, coming from the Bundesliga, where a season ticket at clubs the size of Bayern Munich and Dortmund doesn’t cost much more than a single-game ticket at many Premier League grounds, understands the fans’ frustration. At the end of the day, though, he works for the club, which is why he just wants the whole thing settled quickly, for the sake of his squad — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not what we want. What I know is everyone in the club has a big interest in finding a solution for this. We don’t want people to leave the stadium before the game is finished.”

An LFC TV appearance by Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, in which he was expected to answer fan-submitted questions, was consequently canceled on Monday due to the ongoing dispute.

West Ham want Payet to sign new contract for fear of losing him this summer

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Dimitri Payet is going to be a red-hot commodity during this summer’s transfer window, there’s no doubt about it.

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Given he’s currently contracted to one of the Premier League’s “smaller” clubs — in comparison to some of the giants which are bound to be interested — West Ham United, there’s a decent-to-good chance he could be wearing a different club’s shirt come August. Especially if the 28-year-old attacker shows up and shows out at this summer’s European Championship in his native France.

If I can foresee the interest in Payet, then so too can the executives at West Ham, which is why manager Slaven Bilic took to the press on Monday to convey his desire for Payet to consider signing a new, increased contract at his earliest convenience — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are moving, the club is moving, with the new stadium, with the revenue and everything. We have to move and the most important move is to keep your best players and to add some new players who are needed and Dimitri Payet is our best player — I have no problem whatsoever to say that. Of course, I would love to have him happy, long term, at the club.”

Of course West Ham want Payet to sign a new deal immediately — doing so would accomplish two things in the club’s eyes: 1) increase the likelihood he remains at the club next season, or 2) insure the club receives a higher transfer fee for the player if he leaves in the summer anyway. The more total money remaining on his West Ham contract, the more they can demand of a prospective buyer.

[ MORE: Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018 ]

From Payet’s side — unless he has absolutely zero desire to move to a club like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, where he’d likely be paid close to $200,000 per week — he’d be crazy to sign a new contract at this point. Not only would it make a move this summer more difficult, but a strong showing at EURO 2016 could be worth another $15,000 or $20,000 per week on a new contract with West Ham (his current contract is rumored to be close to $100,000 per week).

With as many as five seasons still remaining on his current contract (a one-year club option can be exercised at any point), and his stock perhaps at an all-time high, the next six months could hold Payet’s last chance to get really, really paid before he hits the downside of his career.

USWNT players’ union responds in USSF lawsuit

FILE - In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, the United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s original lawsuit against the union for its champion women’s national team has been sealed after the governing body realized it had disclosed the home addresses and email accounts of many players, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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(AP) — The union that represents the Women’s World Cup-winning American national team opposed an expedited schedule in the lawsuit filed against it by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week, insisting no collective bargaining agreement exists.

The federation sued in an attempt to establish it has a contract with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association that runs through this year’s Olympics until Dec. 31. The union maintains the memorandum of understanding agreed to in March 2013 can be terminated at any time.

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The USSF filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking for an expedited schedule, and the submitted opposition papers Monday that claim “facts asserted in the motion are nowhere near accurate and are hotly disputed.”

The union also maintains the USSF knew about the disagreement since July but did nothing about it.

An initial status conference is set for April 4.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.