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After Argentina miracle, Messi leads Barcelona at Atletico

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi has willed Argentina into the World Cup.

Now he can exhale and get back to what he does best: Keeping Barcelona atop the Spanish league.

Just when the stakes couldn’t have been higher, Messi struck three goals to bring Argentina back for a 3-1 win at Ecuador on Tuesday and seize a last-minute ticket to Russia.

The star forward will have little chance to rest, however, with Barcelona counting on him to lead the team in its visit to Atletico Madrid on Saturday in the Spanish capital.

THE SAVIOR

Messi has won a combined 17 trophies for Barcelona in the Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey.

But his success with Barcelona has only increased the pressure on him to deliver silverware for Argentina. So far, he has lifted Argentina to only finals in the World Cup and Copa America.

Argentina struggled to produce goals throughout South American qualifying for the World Cup heading into the must-win match in Quito. And its chances looked grim when Ecuador scored in the first minute.

“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said after his hat trick.

FORGET NEYMAR

When Neymar bolted for Paris Saint-Germain in August, Barcelona entered into panic mode and scrambled to buy players to fill the gap left by the Brazil striker.

It had to break a club record for spending on a transfer to pry Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, only for the France forward to tear a tendon in his left leg in just his third appearance.

But throughout the turmoil and turnover, Messi has responded by playing one of his best periods of football.

The 30-year-old Messi has 11 goals in seven league matches, including one four-goal outing and a treble. That has helped Barcelona outscore opponents 23-2 in the league.

He has also netted twice in the Champions League in wins over Juventus and Sporting Lisbon.

NEXT UP

Atletico is the most serious test yet for Barcelona in the league.

Yet, despite its reputation as one of the toughest defensive sides in Spain, Atletico is one of Messi’s favorite victims.

Messi has scored against Atletico 27 times in 34 matches across all competitions, including 12 at its former stadium.

Atletico hosts Barcelona for the first time at its new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.

Atletico is unbeaten in the league, although it lost to Chelsea 2-1 at home in the Champions League.

Barcelona leads second-place Sevilla by five points. Atletico is fourth and trails the pacesetter by six points.

Real Madrid is seven points adrift before visiting Getafe on Saturday.

WATCH LIVE: Everton vs. Swansea City

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Everton looks to continue its upswing while reversing the hoodoo of Swansea City when it hosts the Welsh side at Goodison Park on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Swans have not lost to Everton in three seasons, but sit bottom of the Premier League table.

Sam Allardyce started Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ashley Williams against the former side, while Paul Clement will hope to get an upset with Wilfried Bony up top.

LINEUPS

Everton: Pickford, Kenny, Martina, Holgate, Williams, Schneiderlin, Gana Gueye, Lennon, Rooney, Sigurdsson, Calvert-Lewin. Subs: Robles, Keane, Jagielka, Ramirez, Davies, Vlasic, Lookman.

Swansea City: Fabianski, Naughton, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson, Roque Mesa, Fer, Carroll, Dyer, Narsingh, Bony. Subs: Nordfeldt, van der Hoorn, Rangel, Clucas, Sanches, Ayew, Abraham.

Timbers make it official: Savarese is the new boss

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The Portland Timbers have made it official, announcing the hiring of New York Cosmos architect Giovanni Savarese as the successor to Caleb Porter.

Savarese, 46, led the Cosmos to three NASL Championship Games in his first run as a manager, following a playing career that included stops at Millwall, NY/NJ MetroStars, and Swansea City. He attended Long Island University, and was capped 30 times with 10 goals for Venezuela.

[ BLANC: I turned down USMNT talks ]

He’s an intriguing hire for Portland, who won an MLS Cup but suffered from inconsistency under the highly-regarded Porter (twice missing the playoffs but twice earning the West’s No. 1 seed). While the Cosmos regularly spent well, Savarese navigated the uncertain waters of a nascent league with regular success.

From Timbers.com:

“I am both excited and proud to become the head coach of the Portland Timbers, and this is an ideal fit and outstanding opportunity for me as I take the next step in my coaching career,” Savarese said. “The passion, ambition and support surrounding this club is truly inspiring, and I am sincerely honored and grateful for this opportunity to lead it on the pitch and to build on the club’s history of success for the community and the incredible supporters of the Portland Timbers.”

The hiring has been rumored for some time. Though Savarese was loyal to the Cosmos, the NASL’s future has been hung in the hands of the legal system for some time due to a bold lawsuit against U.S. Soccer Federation. The NASL contends that the relationships between the USSF, Soccer United Marketing, United Soccer League, and Major League Soccer have conspired to stop the NASL from competing with MLS as a D-1 league.

LVG would only return to club football to get at Man Utd

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Leave it to The Daily Mirror to find that last bit of juice when it comes to Manchester United and former manager Louis Van Gaal.

Well, probably the last bit.

The Dutch manager said he does not expect to return to club football, unless one of the big boys in the Premier League offered him the chance to take a run at United. The Red Devils, of course, fired him shortly after an FA Cup title in order to hire Jose Mourinho.

[ MORE: WBA 1-2 Man Utd | Bournemouth 0-4 Liverpool ]

From The Mirror, quoting LVG at a Sunday night function in Rotterdam.

“I will probably not manage a club anymore,” Van Gaal said. “I would make one exception: If a big English club comes for me, than I would do it. Because then I can get the chance to get one over on Manchester United.’’

Could you see him getting a run at any of the Top Four contenders, even on a caretaker basis? Could Liverpool come calling if they tired of Jurgen Klopp one season, or might Arsenal or even Everton need a stopgap (should the Toffees spending come good)?

Suspended Villar says Spain in danger of missing World Cup

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The suspended president of the Spanish soccer federation, who is under investigation for corruption, tried Monday to stoke up fears that the country could be kicked out of the World Cup because of government interference.

Angel Maria Villar, who is free on bail, spoke at a news conference in Madrid and again denied any wrongdoing. He also blamed the government for meddling in the federation’s affairs by suspending him.

“This government is putting Spain’s participation in the World Cup at risk,” the 67-year-old Villar said in his first news conference since being arrested in July along with his son, Gorka Villar, and two other officials.

[ BLANC: I turned down USMNT talks ]

“The risk is serious,” Villar said. “The only party responsible for Spain not going to the World Cup will be the Spanish government.”

Villar spoke three days after FIFA said it was concerned about the independence of the Spanish soccer federation and that it would soon send a delegation to analyze the situation. FIFA made no mention of a possible suspension of the federation, which could keep Spain out of next year’s World Cup in Russia or even knock Real Madrid and Barcelona out of the Champions League.

Villar, who has spent time behind bars to impede the possible destruction of evidence, and the other three officials are being investigated for alleged improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption and falsifying documents.

Villar resigned his vice presidencies of both FIFA and UEFA following his arrest. But he tried to stay on as the head of Spanish federation, a post he held for three decades.

His refusal to listen to pleas for him to step down led the Spanish government to suspend him from the post for one year pending the outcome of the investigation. Court documents allege that besides misappropriated funds, Villar is suspected of corrupting several regional federations by offering favors in exchange for votes.

Villar fired back at the government, saying his suspension had broken FIFA rules since it represented interference in the federation’s management.

“It’s easy to see that the source of concern was my arbitrary and unjustified removal from the presidency of the federation and for not respecting the presumption of innocence,” Villar said, adding that other teams are ready to take Spain’s place at the World Cup.

“Be careful. There are other powerful countries that didn’t qualify like Italy that are waiting to pounce and take our place,” Villar said.

Spain, which won the World Cup in 2010, is considered to be among the favorites for next year’s tournament.