UCL Preview: Barcelona hope to tip the scales against Atlético Madrid

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Before the first leg of its UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Atlético Madrid, there was a sense Barcelona’s recent draws against last year’s Copa del Rey winners provided a partial picture of the teams’ matchup. After 90 minutes in Catalonia and the teams’ fourth draw of the season, a more dire picture’s presented itself. If Barcelona doesn’t break through Wednesday at the Vicente Calderón — if it does not become the first team to claim victory in the clubs’ season series — the Blaugrana could meet their earliest Champions League exit in seven years.

The 1-1 result at the Nou Camp leaves the teams even at halftime, but the away goals edge sits with Atleti. And in two of the teams’ four meetings this season, the game has ended 0-0. While a score draw will mean at least penalty kicks for Gerardo Martino’s men, a third scoreless game will put Atlético into an unlikely semifinal. The Colchoneros need to neither win nor score to move past the three-time champions.

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

“The result [of the first leg] doesn’t mean anything,” Atlético head coach Diego Simeone cautioned on Tuesday. “Barcelona always play offensively and this is a perfect match for them with [potentially] 120 minutes to play …We are going to come up against the best Barcelona players of recent times. These games are special for them and they are used to playing them.”

Given the injuries Barcelona carries into this match, the reigning Spanish champions may need multiple goals to know off Atlético. Víctor Valdés, the Spanish international who has kept goal for three of the teams’ meetings, is out with a knee injury. He’s joined on the sidelines by the squad’s best defender, Gerard Piqué, who suffered a hip injury in leg one. Club icon Carles Puyol has travelled with the team, but having been out for the last 37 days, his return may prove a desperate one. Though Diego Costa and Arda Turan both carry injuries into Wednesday’s match, a central defense of Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano looks like a weakness.

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

The extent to which those two exposed will depend on the Barcelona midfield – a trio that’s been the foundation of the club’s recent success. As Andrés Iniesta reminded us in leg one, big games often bring out the Spanish international’s best performances – form that makes him one of the top midfielders in the world. Veteran Xavi Hernández comes into the game fully healthy, while defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets is capable of masking a number of blemishes in defense. Bartra and Mascherano may be a worry, but if the midfield performs as expected, Atlético’s chances to exploit them will be limited.

source: Getty Images
Barcelona has two goals against Atlético Madrid this season, both scored by Neymar. (Photo credit: Getty Images.)

This will be a passionate game,” Simeone predicts, “one of the biggest in the UEFA Champions League – between two teams with different styles.”

Atlético’s style — one that’s comfortable player without the ball — means Barcelona will have time to find its biggest weapon, though if recent results are any indication, Lionel Messi may prove less dangerous against Simeone’s team than he would another opponent. In his past five games against Atleti, Messi’s failed to score, and while the Argentine star hasn’t been fully healthy for each contest, Atlético deserves a bulk of the credit. Against an Atleti side whose organization is often its greatest virtue, Messi hasn’t found the same types of chances he’d normally get.

(MORE: Manchester United, Bayern Munich both look to improve on leg one)

“Lionel Messi is used to competing at the maximum level in every game, so when people believe he doesn’t, it attracts a lot of attention,” Martino said, explaining Messi’s production against Atlético. “When there are several games against the same opponent in which he doesn’t score, that can surprise people.”

Be it from Messi, Neymar (the only Barça player to score against Atlético this year), Iniesta or somebody like Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona will need at least one goal on Wedesday. If Costa and Turan are close to 100 percent, it may need more. It may also need Thibault Courtois, Diego Godin, and Miranda to have off days, because after last week’s draw in Catalonia, Barça can’t afford to be kept off the scoresheet.

They don’t necessarily need a win, but Martino’s men do need to score. If Simeone can engineer a third 0-0, the Blaugrana go home.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

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Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

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Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
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The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

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Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

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Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

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Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

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Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

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Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

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For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

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Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.