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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.

Report: West Ham offer $22 million for AC Milan striker Carlos Bacca

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 20:  Carlos Bacca of AC Milan celebrates his goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SS Lazio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on March 20, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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West Ham’s search for an elite striker continues, with their newest target AC Milan’s Carlos Bacca.

According to Sky Sports, the Hammers have bid $22 million for the striker, who led Milan with 18 goals in Serie A play last season.

However, after paying $34 million to sign the striker last summer, it is believed Milan would be unwilling to sell their top scorer for less than $30 million.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

At 29-years-old, Bacca has been one of Europe’s most consistent forwards over the past few seasons. After bagging 49 goals in 108 appearances for Sevilla, he earned a move to Milan last July, finishing third in Serie A scoring in his first year with the club.

West Ham’s chairman David Gold has been open about his desire to sign a world-class striker, with Lyon confirming that they rejected a $45 million bid from the Hammers for Alexandre Lacazette.

VIDEO: Neymar takes batting practice before New York Mets game

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 31:  Brazilian soccer player  Neymar Jr stands in the New York Mets dugout before the game against the Chicago White Sox at Citi Field on May 31, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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We all know Neymar’s skills with a soccer ball, but what about with a baseball bat?

Spoiler alert: He’s better with his feet.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Copa coverage ]

The Barcelona and Brazil superstar was in New York on Tuesday night and hit up the batting cages at Citi Field before the Mets game against the Chicago White Sox.

Taking swings lefty, Neymar made some contact but didn’t necessarily have the smoothest stroke…

He then hit the field and got back to his roots, showing off some footskills while juggling a baseball.

I’m not too sure if Neymar is a baseball fan, but this may make him the Mets’ newest, most famous supporter (sorry Jerry Seinfeld).

Neymar is in the United States as he has some time off after the long Barcelona season. He is not playing in the Copa America with Brazil, but will instead play in the Olympics in August.

Messi’s tax fraud case begins with player avoiding court

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 17:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on  during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on April 17, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Lionel Messi’s tax trial began Tuesday with the player deciding not to appear in court for early proceedings.

Messi is facing a prison sentence of nearly two years on charges he failed to properly pay taxes for part of his earnings from Barcelona from 2007-09.

[ FOLLOW: All of PSTS’s Copa coverage ]

The Argentina playmaker is not obligated to appear in the Barcelona court until Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify before a judge. Sentencing is not expected until next week.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud for allegedly defrauding Spain’s tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million).

Because of the trial, Messi is missing Argentina’s preparation for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Saturday in the United States. He is expected to fly straight to the U.S. to join his teammates after the trial ends. Argentina debuts in the tournament on Monday against defending champion Chile.

Even if found guilty, it is highly unlikely that Messi or his father will face any jail time. They have denied wrongdoing.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

“Everything is good. Everybody is calm,” said Messi’s lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, as he arrived at the Barcelona court on Tuesday.

The trial is centered on alleged unlawful activities of Messi’s father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case. Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

In addition to each facing a prison sentence of 22 months and 15 days, Messi and his father could also be fined in the amount defrauded and ordered to pay all legal proceedings and the loss of any possible tax benefits for a year and a half.

Messi is just the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain’s tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

[ MORE: Marcelo giving away UCL winners’ medal…on Facebook ]

Mascherano, Messi’s teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011 and 2012. Brazil striker Neymar recently had to testify before a judge because of alleged irregularities involving his transfer to Barcelona. He and the club were accused of withholding the real amount of the transfer fee, in part to avoid paying the full amount of taxes.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.

VIDEO: Bayern’s David Alaba scores brutal own goal for Austria

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David Alaba is going to want this one back…

While playing in a friendly for Austria, the Bayern Munich left-back scored a cringe-worthy own-goal that his teammates will surely never let him forget.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO coverage ]

With Austria leading Malta 2-0, goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan played out of the back to Alaba. As pressure come from Malta’s strikers, Alaba turned and played a blind pass back to his keeper.

The only problem is, his keeper wasn’t there.

Ozcan did the right thing and moved outside of his goal to give Alaba support, only the defender never picked up his head to realize. Austria would hold on to win the match 2-1.

[ MORE: Klinsmann treating USMNT’s Copa opener vs. Colombia like a final ]

After winning their EURO qualification group with nine wins from ten matches, Austria has high hopes of making a run in the tournament. They will play in Group F with Portugal, Iceland, and Hungary.