Early Champions League exit highlights problems at Barcelona

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For the first time since Frank Rijkaard walked the sidelines at Camp Nou, Barcelona is approaching a crossroads, with today’s loss to Atlético Madrid underscoring the club’s evermore precarious future. But whereas before the club could pull somebody like Pep Guardiola from the ranks and right its course, the next chapter in Barcelona’s history looks less certain. Both on the field and off, an era of dominance may be coming to an end, giving today’s early exit from Champions League a bigger, more concerning context.

For most clubs, a quarterfinal departure wouldn’t be considered early, but when a club’s made six straight semifinals, it develops expectations. Particularly considering the only thing that stood between Barcelona and the final four was an opponent from Spain that’s not Real Madrid, Champions League becomes an even more telling test. While Atlético had proved its quality in four previous appearances with Barcelona, the Blaugrana had also showed its inability to conquer that new challenge. Now, that challenge has seen the Catalans out of Europe.

The problems extend back to league play, too. After running away with the title last year, Barcelona’s been pulled into a three-team race for first. The club’s early exit from Champions League may actually help in that regard, leaving it the only Liga contender not balancing European concerns. While Atlético and El Real extend their squads in a quest for European glory, Barcelona can focus on retaining La Liga.

Still, if previous years’ success is the benchmark, this season remains a cause for concern. The regression many thought would arrive sooner has started to surface in 2014. Be it by age (Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol), increased injury concerns (Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué), or departures (Víctor Valdés), one of the greatest teams in club soccer history is finally coming back to the pack.

That plight’s only exacerbated by problems off the field. At a time when Barcelona desperately needs to inject new talent, it may not be able to do so. Recently hit with a transfer ban for illegally signing underage players, Barcelona will be out of the next two transfer markets. Provided an appeal doesn’t diminish that sentence, Barça won’t be able to replace the departing Valdés. It won’t be able to bring in some desperately needed central defenders, and if it’s unable to reload, the midfield all of a sudden looks thin. With the core of the team set to play at this summer’s World Cup, a set of legs run ragged by the international schedule (and, Spain’s consistently runs in major tournaments) won’t get reinforcements.

source: Reuters
Sandro Rosell, left, resigned as Barcelona president in January. He was replaced by Josep Maria Bartomeu, right. (Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters.)

You can blame the Sandro Rosell regime for that, just as you can blame the departed president for the Neymar fiasco and the increasingly murky relationship between Qatar and a team that used to ar UNICEF across its chests. While fans all over the world romanticize the member-owned model, places like Argentine club scene and Catalonia (among others) get to deal with its repercussions.

After being chosen to replace Joan Laporta in 2010, Rosell moved the team toward the precarious, amoral place it occupies now. While the altruism of Barcelona used to strike an annoying cord, that elitist high-groins is still favorable to a tenure that’s left Barcelona no different from Europe’s other obscenely large clubs.

In that sense, what’s happening at Barcelona isn’t about today’s loss, though the departure from Champions League does gives us a chance to take stock. Just as Manchester United’s loss to Bayern leaves us asking what’s next for the Red Devils, Barcelona’s also reflects the club’s current woes. Not even claiming Liga and Copa del Rey titles will completely assuage the feeling that the season has been a step back.

In two months, Gerardo Martino may be gone, and while Barcelona will have a number of quality coaches pining for the job, others will see a two-window ban, aging core, and squad with holes as a reason to stay away. Be it Martino or somebody else, whomever’s in charge come July will have to deal with the miles another World Cup has put on Hernández, Iniesta, Dani Alves and Messi. And they’ll have to do so without being able to reinforce the core.

One loss in Madrid didn’t cause any of these problems. It only highlights the extent of them, and in that light the crossroads may not be a good one. It implies the club has options, yet locked into what it has, Barcelona may need to see this out. It may be helpless to prevent an end of an era.

Arsenal 0-0 Middlesbrough: Gunners slip up at home

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  • Gunners unbeaten since opening day
  • Ramirez hits bar for Boro
  • Boro without a win in 7

Arsenal were held to a 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium against Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Arsene Wenger‘s side had won six Premier League games on the bounce going into this game but Aitor Karanka‘s Boro went close on several occasions as Arsenal had an off day.

With the point Arsenal still go top of the Premier League table on 20 points, while Boro has eight points after a resolute defensive display as they always looked dangerous on the break.

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Early on Mesut Ozil went down in the box after a cutback but referee Mike Dean waved away the penalty appeals.

Middlesbrough then had a glorious chance as on the break Adama Traore saw his shot blocked by Petr Cech and then Alvaro Negredo’s follow up was saved.

From that attack Boro then won a free kick ans Gaston Ramirez struck the angle of the post and bar. Agonizingly close.

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Alexis Sanchez then went close from a similar free kick as Victor Valdes pushed it out of the top corner. Traore then whipped a cross in which Negredo flicked on to Ramirez who sent his header straight at Cech.

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Arsenal almost went ahead as Valdes made came out and made a hash of it but Laurent Koscielny completely missed the ball.

Alexis then went close as his free kick was tipped around the post by Valdes and Arsenal continued to pour forward. Boro looked dangerous on the break as Mustafi was caught out by Ramirez as the Teeside club hung in there until the end.

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Valdes stopped Sanchez late on as Arsenal poured forward but at the other end Negredo and Traore combined on the break but the former couldn’t make the most of the opportunity as Koscielny made a superb tackle.

Then, Arsenal thought they’d won the game in stoppage time but Ozil was offside as he finished. The game ended 0-0 with Arsenal missing out on the chance to go three points clear at the top of the table.

West Ham 1-0 Sunderland: Reid scores at the death

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22: Dimitri Payet of West Ham United and Lamine Kone of Sunderland compete for the ball during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Sunderland at Olympic Stadium on October 22, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
(Stephen Pond / Getty Images)
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  • New Zealand defender scores late
  • Sunderland continues struggles
  • USMNT’s Gooch subs on late

West Ham United dominated visiting Sunderland but looked destined for a frustrating draw with the lowly Black Cats at Olympic Stadium on Saturday.

That’s when Winston Reid stepped in, belting a shot through traffic in what could only be described as the final ticks of stoppage time to give the Hammers a 1-0 win.

Sunderland remains dead last with two points, while the Hammers are 15th with 10 points.

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Referee Bobby Madley denied a pair of penalty appeals in the early moments, and one — a blocking foul just outside the six — was almost certainly valid enough to give the Hammers a chance from the spot.

West Ham was simply better for the entire first half, but their finishing continued to elude the Olympic Stadium set. Simone Zaza was emblematic of their problems, very strong but without goal (just missing an acrobatic bicycle kick just before half).

How dominant were they? See below:

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[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sunderland had the first chance of the second half, with Adrian called on to parry a hard shot from outside the 18.

Otherwise the half was almost exclusively West Ham, and Reid ripped a Dimitri Payet — who else? — pass through traffic for the win.

American midfielder Lynden Gooch came on for the final quarter hour.

Hull City 0-2 Stoke City: Shaqiri’s magical brace is enough

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City and Curtis Davies of Hull City compete for the ball during the Premier League match between Hull City and Stoke City at the KCom Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
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  • Shaqiri scored first half blast
  • Adds free kick in second half
  • Potters 100th PL win
  • Tigers have lost five-straight

Xherdan Shaqiri scored a pair of wonderful goals to pull Stoke City out of the drop zone and send Hull City to 18th in a 2-0 win at the KC Stadium on Saturday.

Stoke moves 14th with 9 points, two ahead of the relegation zone. Hull have seven points.

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The Potters got on the board when Hull’s defense allowed plenty of room to work the ball.

Shaqiri blasted the ball inside the near post from yards beyond the 18 for a goal you’ll see on all the highlight reels.

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Make that four, Opta, as Shaqiri scored a very nice free kick after halftime to make it 2-0 and ensure a trip away from the drop zone.

There just wasn’t much to like for Mike Phelan’s Tigers, who were outshot and outplayed at home.

Leicester City 3-1 Crystal Palace: Foxes look the part in win

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Ahmed Musa of Leicester City (R) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with his team mate Danny Simpson of Leicester City (L) during the Premier League match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace at The King Power Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
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  • Musa, Okazaki break slumps
  • Fuchs scores gorgeous goal
  • Foxes first win in four
  • Palace winless in three

Leicester City’s Champions League form is carrying into the Premier League, as Claudio Ranieri‘s Foxes controlled proceedings in a X-X win over Crystal Palace on Saturday at King Power Stadium.

Ahmed Musa scored his first Leicester City goal, while Shinji Okazaki added his first tally in 14 PL matches to help salt it away. Unlikely goal scorer Christian Fuchs celebrated his new contract with a terrific left-footed shot in the 80th minute.

Yohan Cabaye scored for Palace.

Leicester joins 11th place Palace on 11 points.

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The first half was certainly in Leicester City’s wheelhouse, albeit without traditional finish.

Islam Slimani in particular seemed a touch off, but the Foxes’ man played a big role in the opener.

Slimani’s lay-off found Musa, who ripped the ball through traffic and to the left of Steve Mandanda to make it 1-0.

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Leicester seemed best prepared to score the next goal, and Danny Drinkwater had a shot deflected wide around the hour mark.

The goal came through Okazaki, who darted onto a blocked cross and blasted a shot by Mandanda inside the near post from 15 yards.

Cabaye was a lively player for Palace, and Kasper Schmeichel denied his point blank chance in the 74th minute. The ensuing corner saw Danny Simpson clear Christian Benteke‘s header off the line.

Fuchs then tore into a left-footed volley from just outside the 18 for a goal of the weekend contender.

Schmeichel blocked a partial Benteke breakaway in the 83rd minute, and Cabaye redirected Wilfried Zaha‘s cross to dirty Leicester’s clean sheet. That was the only goal of a furious fightback from Palace.