Atlético Madrid breaks through, sends Barcelona out of Champions League

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For the first time in seven years, Barcelona will not be among the last four teams standing in UEFA Champions League. After Koke’s early goal stood up at the Vicente Calderón, Atlético Madrid is through to its first semifinal in 40 years, with the team’s 1-0 (2-1, aggregate) win escorting the three-time champions out of the tournament.

Atlético struck first during a dominant opening spell, with a slew of chances near the five-minute-mark allowing Koke to blast home the game’s only goal. Though the Spanish leaders produced a series of close calls on both sides of halftime, they were made to defend their 1-0 lead to the final whistle, eventually producing their first win of the season over Barcelona.

Between La Liga, Spanish Super Cup, and Champions League, the teams had faced each other four previous times this season, with each match ending in a draw. Last week’s game in Barcelona saw Atlético take a 1-1 result out of the Nou Camp, with the away goal potentially looming large in today’s second leg.

Thanks to Koke’s opener, however, Atlético didn’t need to rely on its tiebreaker edge. Finally breaking through against last year’s Spanish champions, a team that hasn’t been to the finals since 1974 is one step closer to another shot. Diego Simeone’s team joins Bayern Munich, Chelsea, and rival Real Madrid in Europe’s final four.

An overwhelming opening 12 minutes put Atlético on the scoresheet early. Unable to deal with the hosts’ high pressure, Barcelona gave up a series of chances in the fifth minute, with a sequence that started with an Adrían López shot off the right post ending with Koke slamming the opener into an empty net. In a spell where Atleti had three chances, the final one was the charm. For the third time in five meetings, Atlético struck first against Barcelona.

Throughout the first half, Simeone’s side had a number of chances to take its first two-goal lead over Barcelona this year. Moments after the opener, Atlético’s pressure produced another opportunity, with David Villa’s shot going out for a corner after Dani Alves’ desperate block. In the 12th minute, a Villa blast from the left hit the near post, while another chance for the former Barcelona striker nailed the cross-bar in the 21st minute.

source: AP
Lionel Messi had three chances to get Barcelona on the scoreboard but extended his scoreless drought to six games against Atlético Madrid. (Photo credit: AP Photo.)

By that time, Barcelona had come into the match, adjusting to Atlético’s pressure to maintain two-thirds of the half’s possession. Chances were still difficult to come by, however, even if the best opportunities fell to the team’s danger man. Shortly after Villa’s first shot off the post, Messi was given a free header from near the Atlético penalty spot, but he was unable to steer the Alves cross on goal. Later in the half, after Neymar beat two players down the left, a ball sent across the top of the six couldn’t be put on target, with Messi pushing his shot wide of the near post.

At the beginning of the second, Barcelona started looking more like their normal selves, proving more purposeful with its possession in the half’s opening moments.  In the 48th minute, a perfectly weighted Xavi Hernández through ball tested Atlético goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, with the Belgian charging off his line to get a left hand to the ball as Neymar tried to touch it into space. Moments later, as a recovering Courtois stumbled near his line, a ball falling to Messi was volleyed over the bar, with Barcelona’s biggest star missing another chance to bring his side level.

The close call served as a wake up call for Atlético, who kept Barcelona without any meaningful chances over the next 15 minutes. Once the game began opening up, it was the home side who proved more threatening. Substitute Diego blasted a chance from a sharp angle into Pinto’s gloves in the 65th minute. Gabi failed to convert a breakaway created by Villa in the 71st minute, weakly hitting a shot into Pinto’s boots. Javier Mascherano was fortunate not to draw Howard Webb’s whistle while playing catchup on Villa in the 72nd. Just as in the first half, Atlético was collecting a serious of misses that would only heighten the heartbreak, should Barcelona come back.

Even as Atlético started to recede further into its own half, it was still producing the better chances. New full-time, substitute Cristian Rodríguez was sent in on down through the left of the penalty area only to put another shot off Pinto’s gloves. Moments later, pressure on the Barcelona keeper saw Víctor Valdés’ backup send a ball back across this empty goal. Though Barcelona was pursuing an equalizer, it was Atlético that was applying the pressure.

Come full time, a matchup that had been gloriously even through 360 minutes finally had a decisive winner. With an early goal and tests of ever part of Pinto’s goal, Atlético was clearly the better side, leaving both sides no doubts as to who deserved a spot in the Champions League semifinals.

Report: Guardiola to take manager’s job at Man City next season

Pep Guardiola, Bayern Munich

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Manchester City desperately want to lure Pep Guardiola away from Bayern Munich and pay the Spaniard tactician lots and lots of money to come manage in the Premier League.

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Of course we’ve all heard it before — a number of times, in fact. So, what’s different about the latest report, hitting the headlines very late Thursday night in Europe, linking the 44-year-old to Man City?

Well, apparently, we’ve moved past “Man City will offer Guardiola whatever he wants to come to the Etihad Stadium,” and arrived at “Guardiola has agreed terms to become manager at Man City.”

However, the respected Spanish radio station Cadena COPE is reporting that Guardiola has already decided he would like “a change of scenery” and will succeed Manuel Pellegrini at the Etihad Stadium.

“Pep Guardiola will leave Bayern Munich at the end of this season and will train Manchester City next season,” read the report.

“Guardiola has decided on a change of scenery. He considers his time in Germany will end on 30 June after three seasons and, therefore, fulfil one of his wishes: to coach in England.”

With all due respect to every player Man City have signed in the last decade, the acquisition of Guardiola would be, by far, their greatest coup to date — a manager with a clear ethos, a clear plan of action and a track record of having succeeded and won in the UEFA Champions League, which remains the most elusive trophy to City’s cabinet.

Mourinho-Costa feud could mean January transfer activity for Chelsea

Diego Costa & Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
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Perhaps no man in the footballing world has been embroiled in more controversy this season than Jose Mourinho, who remains in charge of Chelsea despite a horrid start to the club’s 2015-16 Premier League campaign.

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The Portuguese mastermind has fallen out with a number of his own players and staff this season, so why not add another name to the growing list? Come on down, Diego Costa, you’re Mourinho’s next combatant.

The two reportedly got into a heated locker-room exchange following Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Given Costa’s increasingly poor form all the way back to the final weeks and months of the 2014-15 season — just seven goals scored in the last 10 months — Mourinho is reportedly less and less sure the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard is the right man to lead the line for the reigning PL champions.

The details of Mourinho and Costa’s halftime spat, from the Guardian:

Mourinho, just as he did after a similar situation against Norwich on Saturday, made his frustrations clear at the forward’s lack of anticipation over an Eden Hazard pass, which would have provided the striker with a tap-in had he been on the move. Costa returned his manager’s remonstrations in kind. Oscar and John Terry tried to calm him down only to be pushed aside. The manager subsequently suggested there had been “a few kisses, a few cuddles” in the dressing room at the interval, and “no problem,” though the public show of dissent was notable.

The club’s hierarchy is reportedly considering dipping into the transfer market in January — something they’re extremely loath to do — to replace the misfiring Costa. The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Saido Berahino are the biggest currently linked with the Blues, given the lack of elite players typically available — as well as not being cup-tied in the Champions League — during the January window.

Chelsea, who currently sit 15th in the PL, return to league action on Sunday when they visit Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane (Watch live at 6:30 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra).

Wenger expects “hunting lion” Sanchez to be fit for Norwich clash

Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal FC
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Alexis Sanchez is, by regular human standards, questionable for Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Norwich City on Sunday (Watch live at 11 a.m. ET on Live Extra), thanks to a tweak to his hamstring during Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb.

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There’s just one problem with the above premise: Sanchez, according to manager Arsene Wenger, isn’t exactly human; he’s more like a lion, says Wenger — a hunting lion chasing after and feasting on its prey.

Wenger, on Sanchez’s ability to recover quickly and star for the Gunners — quotes from the Guardian:

“When he does something, he does it 100%. He finishes and you think: ‘He’s dead now.’ But then he recovers and gives 100% again. You always see signs of exhaustion but it’s not [that], because two days later, he’s fine.

“His style is very explosive, it’s a very committed style. Jamie Vardy is a bit similar. When they go, they go. They are like the lion. He has to catch the animal in the first 200 metres. If he doesn’t get there, he’s dead [on his feet] afterwards. They are these kind of killers. When they go, it is to kill and after, they have to stop.”

“I take information, especially from the medical people who know him and treat him everyday and after, we look at his overall recovery as well. When there are alarming signs, we want to make the right decision at the right moment but as long as the guys are confident, they score goals – it is always difficult to rest them.”

Sanchez’s production this season — 9 goals, 4 assists in 17 appearances – all competitions — is right on par with his spectacular debut in the PL last season. “What is also remarkable is that he goes to South America to play,” Wenger went on to say. “He comes back on Thursday night and on Saturday he can play without a problem, even if he’s jet-lagged.”

Expect Sanchez to feature on Sunday, and probably to score a goal or two, as well.

“Unprofessional” Grealish banished to U-21s after nightclub incident

Jack Grealish, Aston Villa FC
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2015 has been an eventful calendar year for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, to say the least.

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First, there was his emergence as a prominent first-team player for his boyhood club; followed by the Villans’ run to the FA Cup final in May; then came the England-versus-Ireland tug-of-war for his international services; a forgettable vacation to Spain for the 20-year-old; and another managerial change at Villa Park. After yet another off-field incident last weekend, in which Grealish was photographed in a nightclub hours after a 4-0 defeat to Everton, his new manager, Remi Garde, has labeled Grealish “unprofessional” and sent him away to train with the club’s U-21 side.

Garde, on Grealish’s actions and subsequent punishment — quotes from the Guardian:

“This is not professional. It is not what is expected from my players. That is why now Jack is training with the under-21 team for the moment. He won’t be included in the squad for Watford. At this stage he is not playing this weekend and he is training with the under-21 team. That is all I can say for the moment.”

“Sometimes players in every country ask to stay in the city we have played in and this is not a problem for me, it happens one or two times a season. The problem with Jack was not that he wasn’t on the bus. The problem was elsewhere.”

Villa, who will welcome 13th-place Watford to Villa Park on Saturday (Watch live at 10 a.m. ET on Live Extra), currently sit rock bottom in the Premier League (5 points from 13 games), five points away from climbing out of the relegation zone.