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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.

“It can’t get any worse” West Ham captain Mark Noble slams team for struggles

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 10:  Mark Noble of West Ham United looks thoughtful after the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on May 10, 2016 in London, England. West Ham United are playing their last ever home match at the Boleyn Ground after their 112 year stay at the stadium. The Hammers will move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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West Ham is in a massive slump, and with questions being asked around the whole squad, captain Mark Noble has said things are at an all-time low.

“If I’m honest, it could have been six in the end had Adrian not pulled off some good saves. On the bright side I don’t think it can get any worse.” Noble claimed after the 3-0 home loss to Southampton. The London club has the worst defensive record in the Premier League, having given up 16 goals in six matches this season, with the most recent games especially bad.

[ RECAP: Charlie Austin, Dusan Tadic down West Ham 3-0 ]

“We’ve conceded 11 in three games and it’s laughable and not good enough. We know that,” Noble conceded. “To be honest I think we could have kept playing until tonight and I don’t think we would have scored. It doesn’t seem to be going in for us at the minute.”

But he also preached togetherness if the team is to lift itself out of the relegation zone.

“We’ve got to stick together and not blame each other,” Noble said. “We have to do this as a team, because it’s not good enough.  You’ve got to work hard for each other. You can’t start talking in your little circles and blaming each other because we’ve got to look at ourselves. Luckily enough it’s early in the season and we’ve got a chance to turn it around.”

Bundesliga roundup: Schalke misery continues, Leipzig gets road point at Koln

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24:  Markus Weinzierl the head coach of FC Augsburg speaks during the FC Augsburg Press Conference ahead of their UEFA Europa League round of 32, second leg match against Liverpool at Anfield on February 24, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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Schalke has spent 24 seasons in the German top flight, and made regular appearances near the top of the Bundesliga table in the past eight years.

This season is not looking true to that form. Schalke has yet to pick up a single point through five matches, with another loss today on the road at 9th-placed Hoffenheim 2-1. The visitors went ahead just four minutes in thanks to Eric Choupo-Moting, but they coughed up the lead, making way to goals from Lukas Rupp and former Leicester City midfielder Andrej Kramaric.

Schalke manager Markus Weinzierl only took charge this summer, and that has him already under pressure as the only team without a point in the German top flight, the club’s worst ever start to a Bundesliga season. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, picked up their first win, moving them to the top half of the table on seven points. The club had four draws in four matches up to this point.

Elsewhere, Red Bull Leipzig picked up a road point at FC Koln with a 1-1 draw. Both goal came early in the match, as 19-year-old Scotsman Oliver Burke scored just five minutes into his Bundesliga debut for Leipzig, and Koln answered on 25 minutes through Yuya Osako.

In that match, 20-year-old Leipzig striker Timo Werner became the youngest player to ever reach 100 appearances in Bundesliga play. Leipzig moves up to eight points with the draw, while Koln has 10 points moving them up to a surprising third, still without a loss.

West Ham 0-3 Southampton: Austin, Tadic pile on West Ham woes

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Charlie Austin remained hot, scoring his fifth goal in his last four matches to open the scoring, and it only got worse for the home fans at the Olympic Stadium as West Ham slumped to yet another defeat, this time to surging Southampton 3-0 behind goals from Austin, Dusan Tadic, and James Ward-Prowse.

West Ham pressed forward in the early going, seeing a number of touches inside the Southampton box, but the Saints held strong. As the first half progressed, the teams dribbled back and forth through the midfield, with the occasional moment of excessive physicality, keeping referee Jon Moss busy.

Oriol Romeu was cautioned in the ninth minute for a very heavy challenge on Manuel Lanzini near the mid-line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Southampton began to build themselves into possession past the half-hour mark, and with five minutes to go until the break, West Ham’s leaky defense opened the door again. Ryan Bertrand overlapping on the left cut back to Charlie Austin at the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot past Adrian to put Southampton in front.

Following halftime, the visitors pushed for a second, nearly grabbing it in the 52nd minute when Dusan Tadic’s effort from close range was stopped expertly by a wonderful Adrian save down to his left. That sprung West Ham to life, and the Olympic Stadium responded with a ringing endorsement from the home fans.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Simone Zaza was booked for diving on the hour mark after flopping over a nothing challenge in the box from Romeu. Down the other end, Southampton struck again. With the Hammers dispossessed in their own half, a brilliant flick from Austin sprung Tadic free on goal, and he rounded Adrian and tapped home Southampton’s second.

Down 2-0, Slaven Bilic threw on young Ashley Fletcher and Sofiane Feghouli, both of whom had an impact. The Hammers screamed for a penalty in the 70th minute as Feghouli looked to clean up bright play from Payet, but his shot hit the arm of Bertrand, although from close range it would have been hard for Bertrand to react properly to avoid the contact, and Jon Moss did not award a spot kick.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The home side continued to flood forward past the 75th minute, with Southampton content to sit deep and look to counter. Adrian was needed to keep things from getting worse, as he produced quality saves to keep out both James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in the 86th minute. Ward-Prowse would tack on a third in added time, as a deflection off Angelo Ogbonna opened up the young Englishman to poke home easily.

The three points sent Southampton shooting up the Premier League table, into the top half with nine points after their second straight win. Meanwhile, West Ham sits on just three points, shut out for the first time this season and owners of the leakiest defense in the league with 16 goals conceded.

Report: Kevin de Bruyne sidelined a month with hamstring injury

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 24: The Manchester City team check that Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City is okay after being fouled during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Kevin De Bruyne had been in the form of his life under new manager Pep Guardiola, but that will temporarily come to a screeching halt.

The 25-year-old has suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him out around four weeks, according to a report by City Watch, meaning he will miss significant time. He was brought off in the 81st minute of the 3-1 win over Swansea City on Saturday.

That one month span includes an international break, leaving new Belgium manager Roberto Martinez without one of his most in-form attackers. Through six Premier League matches, De Bruyne has two goals and five assists, leading Manchester City to a perfect start to the year as they sit atop the table.

[MORE: Antonio Conte furious with Chelsea’s defensive woes ]

Should four weeks be his time off the pitch, he would miss not only Belgium’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gibraltar, but he would also miss Premier League matchups against Tottenham and Southampton, plus vital Champions League trips to Celtic and Barcelona.

De Bruyne’s absence will be a huge loss to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. According to Squawka Statistics, the Belgian playmaker has created 20 chances through six Premier League matches and has completed eight of 10 attempted take-ons. Guardiola said a week ago that De Bruyne was in the class of player just below Lionel Messi. “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”

One man central to City’s ability to keep pace without De Bruyne will be new purchase Ilkay Gundoguan. The former Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder has started the last two matches after returning from an injury of his own, but has yet to play a full 90 minutes.

UPDATE: Belgian reporter Kristof Terreur of HLN has confirmed the report.