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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.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Lineups and Live Stream)

AP Photo/Tim Ireland
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Tottenham Hotspur’s thin hopes of winning the Premier League demand all three points from its visit to Chelsea on Monday (Watch live on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET and online via Live Extra).

Spurs are eight points behind Leicester City, and a loss or draw makes the Foxes the 2015-16 champions.

[ MORE: Burnley clinches promotion to the Premier League ]

Reigning champion Chelsea, in an odd twist, can play the spoiler for either its London neighbors or the fairytale Foxes.

 

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Begovic; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry (c), Azpilicueta; Mikel, Matic; Willian, Fabregas, Pedro; Diego CostaSubs: Amelia, Baba, Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Oscar, Hazard, Traore.

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris (c), Walker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose; Dier, Dembele; Lamela, Eriksen, Son; Kane. Subs: Vorm, Davies, Wimmer, Carroll, Chadli, Mason, Clinton.

“It’s magic” — Goal hero Vokes hails Burnley’s Premier League return

BURNLEY, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 02:  Sam Vokes of Burnley (obscured) scores their first goal past goalkeeper Matt Ingram of QPR during the Sky Bet Championship match between Burnley and Queens Park Rangers at Turf Moor on May 2, 2016 in Burnley, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Sam Vokes‘ 61st minute header has Burnley back in the Premier League at the first time of asking, and there’s only one way to describe it.

Magic.

[ MORE: Bobby Wood to Hamburg for $4 million? ]

Burnley clinched automatic promotion thanks to its 1-0 win over QPR and Brighton’s draw earlier in the day. With Brighton facing Middlesbrough this weekend, only one could pass Burnley in points.

Take away the math, though, and Burnley is flying off the emotion of the 1-0 win.

From the BBC:

“It’s magic, it’s a great feeling. You could feel the anticipation around the place when we kicked off. We knew what we had to do after the Brighton result earlier. Magic scenes here today. Getting that goal sparked relief around the place. I missed a lot of the Premier League last season but hopefully I’ll get another chance next season.”

And here’s Sean Dyche, classically stoic in the face of extreme emotion:

“That was well off our performance level but the result was all that mattered today. The resilience, belief and character got us through. You can’t be brilliant every week, we don’t think we’re the real deal, but we’re a real group that sticks together.”

If you don’t know much about Burnley, we suggest Joe Posnanski’s SportsWorld piece from last season’s Premier League campaign.

Congrats to the Clarets.

Burnley clinches automatic promotion to the Premier League

PRESTON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 22:  Andre Gray of Burnley holds up one finger to indicate the score to opposing supporters as he is substituted during the Sky Bet Championship match between Preston North End and Burnley at Deepdale on April 22, 2016 in Preston, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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One claret and blue team has been relegated from the Premier League, but another is taking its place.

Sam Vokes did not score in 15 Premier League appearances last year with Burnley, but his goal on Monday boosted the Clarets back into England’s top flight.

[ MORE: Bobby Wood to Hamburg for $4 million? ]

Vokes, 26, headed home in the second half to give Burnley a 1-0 lead over Queens Park Rangers, and the Clarets held on to make sure their absence from the Premier League was a mere season long.

The win gives Burnley 90 points with one match to play. With Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion sitting on 88 points and playing each other on the final day of the season, only one winner can pass the Clarets.

Report: USMNT striker Wood would cost Hamburger around $4 million

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Bobby Wood #7 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
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There seems to be growing interest in USMNT striker Bobby Wood, who is having a sensational season for Union Berlin in 2.Bundesliga.

Linked with Liverpool in March, Wood is now said to be desired by Hamburg in Germany’s top flight.

[ MORE: Klinsmann calls up 40 for Copa America camp ]

Hamburg’s strike corps consists of young target forward Pierre-Michel Lasogga, ‘Gladbach loanee Josip Drmic and veteran Ivica Olic.

Bild.de says the fee is around $4 million, but that the club has yet to begin discussing terms with Union.

Wood has 17 goals and 3 assists in league play this season, and has also become a mainstay with the U.S. team under Jurgen Klinsmann.

[ MORE: Timbers striker wanted by Palace, St. Etienne ]

Union Berlin is sixth in 2.Bundesliga, while Hamburg is 11th in Bundesliga.

Fellow USMNT striker Aron Johannsson has faced a long injury lay-off with Werder Bremen, while a similar situation has faced Terrence Boyd. The latter is with Red Bull Leipzig and is set for a promotion to the Bundesliga barring extreme unlikelihood over the final few weeks.