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Luis Enrique’s departure brings uncertainty to Barcelona

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique’s surprise announcement has left Barcelona surrounded by uncertainty.

Although the coach had been under pressure and many expected him to be replaced next season, few anticipated he would reveal his intention to leave with three months left and with the team still contending for titles.

The announcement – on the night Barcelona regained the lead in the Spanish league – quickly turned the focus away from team’s recent successes on the field and brought attention to its uncertain future.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS 2017 roundtable ]

Seconds after Luis Enrique said he needed to rest and would not return next season after three years in charge, speculation began about who will be the next coach for one of the most dominant clubs in the last decade.

Here are a few things to know about Barcelona’s future:

NEXT COACH

Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli is among the top candidates to replace Luis Enrique next season.

The 56-year-old Argentine coach was sought-after by several clubs and national teams after leading Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015. He eventually joined with Sevilla, and has helped the club become a contender for a league title for the first time in years.

Another rumored candidate is Ernesto Valverde, currently with Athletic Bilbao. He led the Basque club to some of its greatest successes recently, including victory over Barcelona in the 2015 Spanish Super Cup, which gave the club its first trophy in more than 30 years.

STILL TO PLAY

Barcelona still has the chance to win three titles before Luis Enrique leaves – the Spanish league, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, although the latter is unlikely because it must reverse a 4-0 first-leg loss to Paris Saint-Germain.

The 6-1 rout of Sporting Gijon on Wednesday – the team’s fifth win in a row – left Barcelona one point ahead of Real Madrid in the Spanish league, a competition it won the last two seasons with Luis Enrique. The Catalan club will play Alaves in the final of the Copa del Rey, which it also won the last two years.

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“We have three exciting months left,” Luis Enrique said. “Three months in all competitions. In one of them, of course, we are in a difficult situation, but, with everyone’s help, I am sure we will have an opportunity to turn it around.”

MOTIVATED PLAYERS

Luis Enrique’s announcement caught players by surprise, but club president Josep Bartomeu was quick to say that they will be motivated to help the club win again before the coach leaves.

The squad learned of the decision moments after the win over Sporting Gijon at the Camp Nou.

“He told us about his decision before going out for the press conference,” Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic said. “The decision is clear and we have to accept it in the dressing room. We want to end the season successfully, enjoy it as best we can.”

SUCCESSFUL STINT

Luis Enrique had been under pressure since the humiliating loss to PSG in the Champions League, which was likely the team’s worst defeat since he took over from Gerardo Martino ahead of the 2014-15 season.

But the former midfielder won eight of 10 possible titles with the club during his current coaching stint, including the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey and Champions League in his first season in charge.

His other titles with Barcelona include the 2015 UEFA Super Cup and the 2016 Spanish Super Cup, as well as the 2015 Club World Cup.

“We had a super coach during three seasons,” Bartomeu said.

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Timbers sign Peruvian winger Andy Polo from Liga MX’s Morelia

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) The Portland Timbers have acquired winger Andy Polo on loan from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia for the upcoming season.

The 23-year-old native of Peru played in 25 matches last year for Morelia and made six starts with two goals.

He’s also World Cup-bound, having appeared in Peru’s two-legged playoff against New Zealand in November. Peru won 2-0 on aggregate. Overall, he’s appeared with the Peruvian national team 15 times since his senior debut in 2016.

“Andy is a versatile, young player who will add another element to our attack, and we believe that he has further upside to his development,” Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said in a statement.

The Timbers used targeted allocation money and have a purchase option. Polo’s arrival is pending a physical and receipt of a visa.

He will occupy an international roster spot.

Can Man United still sign Sanchez without Mkhitaryan swap?

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The answer to the (first) titled question is, undoubtedly, yes.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

The latter question — the “will they?” — remains a relative unknown at this point, but if reports out of the UK are to be believed, Manchester United are just as likely to send $40 million (or so) Arsenal’s way in exchange for Alexis Sanchez, should Henrikh Mkhitaryan refuse the move by declining any contract offers from the Gunners.

[ MORE: Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies ]

The thinking, at least for the last few days since Man United somewhat unexpectedly entered the Sanchez sweepstakes, was that swapping the Armenian for the Chilean was the obvious — and, perhaps only — way forward. Call it special circumstances or an obvious audible, but that’s not necessarily the case — from the Guardian:

“It is understood that if Mkhitaryan does not leave Mourinho believes that, given the club’s robust finances, [Man United executive vice-chairman] Ed Woodward could still sanction a move for a player who would potentially vastly improve United.”

By the time Sanchez is signed, sealed and delivered, United will have also paid Sanchez and his agent, Fernando Felicevich, massive signing-on fees that could total another $30 million. No matter the order in which the Sanchez-Mkhitaryan saga plays out, United will come out ahead with a superior player at a massively discounted price — should Sanchez ultimately move to Old Trafford, of course.

Conte bewildered VAR not used in Chelsea PK controversies

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If the FA, English football’s governing body, is insistent upon testing video-assistant refereeing (VAR) as they have done in recent FA Cup and League Cup fixtures, Antonio Conte believes they should darn well use it.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Following his Chelsea side’s penalty-shootout victory over Norwich City in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday, Conte was equal parts frustrated and confused by the fact that video-referee Mike Jones failed to prompt referee Graham Scott to consult the on-trial system on multiple occasions.

Most notably, Chelsea’s 92nd-minute (extra-time) penalty shout following Timm Klose‘s tackle on Willian. Scott, instead, booked the Brazilian for diving — one of three cards, all shown to Chelsea players, for simulation on the night — and that was that.

“If you watch the replay you see very clearly it is a penalty,” said Conte after the game — quotes from the BBC:

“I think that there was a penalty but not on [Alvaro] Morata — on Willian.

“With Willian, the referee heard what the other referee watched and decided to continue to play. If we want to try to use this new system, it is important for the referee to wait, especially in this incident that is not so clear.

“And then when the referee that is watching had a doubt, he has to call the referee to watch and he can make a decision. The referee on the pitch has to make the decision, not one off the pitch.

“We can improve it for sure but we need to try to take the best solution. The final decision is for the ref on the pitch. Otherwise, why is there this ref?

“The mistake wasn’t of the ref on the pitch but the person watching. When you see this, you have to call the referee.”

VAR was used in another third-round replay, on Tuesday, and helped to correctly rule Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho as being in an onside position when he scored his side’s second goal. While offside/onside calls are much clearer, cut-and-dry decisions to make — and with the aid of a natural stoppage in play — clearly much work lies ahead with regard to the process of determining whether the referee has made a “clear and obvious error,” which remains the threshold for using VAR, in instances of fouls/diving.

Copa QF: Messi misses PK, Barca’s 29-game unbeaten run ends

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MADRID (AP) — Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Barcelona conceded late as its 29-match unbeaten streak ended in a 1-0 loss to city rival Espanyol in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Wednesday.

Messi failed from the spot in the 62nd minute, his shot brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Diego Lopez.

Youngster Oscar Melendo netted the winner for the hosts in the 88th with his first goal as a professional.

“I have no words, I was looking forward to this first goal,” said the 20-year-old Melendo, who had come on as a substitute in the second half.

It was Espanyol’s first win against Barcelona at its RCDE Stadium.

The second leg of the Catalan derby is next week at Camp Nou.

Barcelona hadn’t lost since a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 16. It had won 23 of its last 29 matches in all competitions.

“We knew we would lose one day,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “The positive thing is that in a week we have a chance to rebound and advance.”

Messi had his chance from the spot after Sergi Roberto was fouled by Esteban Granero, but his low shot into the right corner was stopped as Diego Lopez dived to his left to tip the ball away.

It was a rare miss for Messi, who is having a stellar season and is the Spanish league’s top scorer with 17 goals.

“The penalty save gave us the boost that we needed,” Melendo said. “We were playing too defensively.”

Melendo netted the winner with a low shot from the middle of the area after a well-timed pass by Marc Navarro.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde did not use all of the team’s regular starters, leaving players such as Luis Suarez on the bench.

The match was interrupted for a few minutes in the 76th after Barcelona goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was hit by an object thrown by fans behind his goal.

Barcelona midfielder Paulinho was replaced in the second half because of a foot injury.