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.

Sydney FC to face Melbourne Victory in A-League final

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SYDNEY (AP) Sydney FC will face the Melbourne Victory in next weekend’s grand final of Australian football’s A-League after the top-ranked teams won contrasting semifinals.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in North London rule, but want more ]

While Sydney was as dominant as it has been throughout a 27-match regular season in its 3-0 win over Perth on Saturday, Melbourne needed a 70th-minute goal from striker Besart Berisha to advance with a 1-0 win Sunday over Brisbane.

Josh Brillante, Jordy Buijs and Filip Holosko scored first-half goals as Sydney continued a seemingly unstoppable drive towards its third A-League title – and its first since 2010. The video referee interceded in two of the goals, making the win contentious, but Sydney still demonstrated superiority over the young, confident and ambitious Perth side.

Sydney lost only once in 27 regular-season matches and will enter the final as a considerable favorite.

Berisha sank the hopes of his former club, Brisbane, with his late strike in Sunday’s second semifinal. While the margin was small, the Victory deserved to win after playing more assertively throughout the match.

Its semifinal victory means that the teams that finished first and second at the end of the regular season will contest the final for the fifth straight year. The final repeats the 2015 showdown between Sydney and Melbourne, which the Victory won 3-0.

Hoffenheim reaches Champions League qualifiers for 1st time

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BERLIN (AP) The youngest coach in the Bundesliga, 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, has steered Hoffenheim to a place in the Champions League qualifiers in the club’s best ever season.

Hoffenheim could even secure its first appearance in the Champions League group stage if it holds on to third place – where it now stands after Benjamin Huebner scored in the last minute to snatch a 1-0 home win over Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday. It has three more matches to play this season.

Huebner’s late goal, a powerful header to Sebastian Rudy’s corner, moved the side one point above Borussia Dortmund, which was held to a scoreless draw at home by Cologne on Saturday.

The goal was scored by the son of Frankfurt sporting director Bruno Huebner.

“A lucky win,” acknowledged Hoffenheim backer Dietmar Hopp, the software billionaire whose finances helped his hometown club progress from minor leagues to the Bundesliga.

A co-founder of the SAP software giant, Hopp became the first private owner of a Bundesliga side when he took a majority stake in Hoffenheim in 2015. By then he had already spent an estimated 350 million euros on the team.

However, Hoffenheim’s best appointment to date appears to be that of Nagelsmann, who took over in February 2016 after Huub Stevens stepped down for health reasons.

Then 28, Nagelsmann hadn’t even earned his coaching credentials from the German football federation (DFB). But he saved the side from relegation and Hoffenheim is enjoying its best ever season this year.

The win over Frankfurt extended its unbeaten run at home to 16 games and ensured it beat its previous best-mark of 55 points from the 2008-09 season.

As a player, Nagelsmann lined up for Bavarian sides Augsburg and 1860 Munich before turning his attention to coaching. He spent almost a decade coaching the youth sides of 1860 Munich and then Hoffenheim, for which he was also assistant coach in 2012-13.

Earlier this year, Nagelsmann was named the German football federation’s coach of the year for 2016.

Dortmund hosts Hoffenheim next weekend for a game that is likely to decide which side goes into the qualifiers and which secures automatic qualification for the Champions League.

AUGSBURG 4, HAMBURGER SV 0

Hamburger SV slipped closer to its first ever relegation in a humiliating defeat at fellow struggler Augsburg.

Hamburg, the last founding member of the league to have played every season since its formation in 1963, was left in the relegation playoff place with three games remaining.

“We’re all affected by the performance we showed today,” Hamburg coach Markus Gisdol said. “We were hoping for something different. But we’ve got over other setbacks before and have to deliver the best in the next game.”

Hamburg goalkeeper Tom Mickel and the left post denied Augsburg early on before Halil Altintop fired the home side ahead, midway through the first half.

Altintop scored another before the break, set up by Philipp Max, to give Augsburg some breathing space.

Michael Gregoritsch reacted with a brutal challenge on Dominik Kohr, for which the Hamburg midfielder was fortunate to escape with a yellow card.

Max sealed the result on a counterattack before setting up Raul Bobadilla to complete the scoring late on.

“We could even have scored more goals,” Augsburg coach Manuel Baum said. “But more than three points wouldn’t have been possible.”

Victory lifted Augsburg out of the relegation playoff place and two points above Hamburg, Wolfsburg and Mainz, all level on 33 points. Hamburg, which has conceded a league-worst 59 goals in 31 games, has an inferior goal difference to the other two.

Ingolstadt and Darmstadt occupied the automatic relegation spots. Ingolstadt was four points behind Hamburg, while Darmstadt was all but doomed, nine points behind.

Balotelli, Nice may have spoiled PSG’s title chances

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Monaco took care of business at the top of Ligue 1 on Saturday and now the Champions League semifinalists could be closing in on France’s crown.

[ MORE: Spurs revel in ruling North London, but want more ]

Paris Saint-Germain slipped up on Sunday with a 3-1 loss against third-place Nice, and it could spell the end for the Parisians’ hopes of winning Ligue 1 in 2016/17.

Mario Balotelli sprung Nice in front after 26 minutes with a curling left-footed effort from outside the box, before Ricardo Pereira doubled the advantage for the hosts just three minutes into the second stanza with a lovely curler of his own.

PSG managed to pull a goal back in the 64th minute as Marquinhos gave the visitors a glimmer of hope to keep their title hopes alive.

However, the final minutes of the match took a drastic turn for the worse for PSG as Thiago Motta and Angel di Maria were both shown red cards for violent tackles on Nice players.

Nice also found a third finish after PSG was dwindled down to nine men when Anastasios Donis headed home a lofted cross from the left wing.

With three matches remaining for PSG, Unai Emery’s side sits three points behind league leaders Monaco, who also have a match in hand. PSG finishes up their Ligue 1 account with matches against Bastia, St Etienne and Caen.

Video: Camilo Sanvezzo scores wonder goal for Queretaro

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Camilo Sanvezzo scored two goals on Sunday for Queretaro but many won’t even remember the score of the game after his brilliant first effort.

The Queretaro forward scored the first of two finishes in the 66th minute after winning the ball in his own half, carrying it into the Toluca end and unleashing a deadly shot from just inside midfield.

Sanvezzo eventually scored his side’s second goal in the dying minutes of the match, and his 88th minute finish proved to be the winner for Queretaro, who currently sit 13th in Liga MX.

The 28-year-old should be familiar to MLS fans after Sanvezzo’s time with the Vancouver Whitecaps from 2011 to 2013. The veteran scored 39 goals in 92 matches with the Canadian side.