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Paulinho key to Barca’s big win at Madrid and Liga lead

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) When Paulinho arrived in Spain last summer, most Barcelona fans were unimpressed.

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The 29-year-old Brazilian looked like a poor replacement for the younger, and flashier Neymar after the star striker forced his record-breaking transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.

But Paulinho is a big reason why Barcelona has quickly turned the page four months after Neymar left them in the lurch to open up a commanding lead in the Spanish league.

His contribution to his new team was more evident than ever on Saturday, when he helped Barcelona to a lopsided 3-0 victory at fierce rival Real Madrid.

Paulinho was only stopped from scoring a goal when Dani Carvajal blatantly used his arm to block his goal-bound header in the second half. Little did it help, since it cost the Madrid defender a direct red card and sent Lionel Messi to the penalty spot to make it 2-0.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde praised his player after the match. “The second goal was decisive,” Valverde said. “Paulinho is a player who goes forward in attack very well, and can surprise the defense with his runs into the area. He works hard and covers a lot of kilometers. He helps us a lot.”

Paulinho’s impact was seen from the very start when he was Barcelona’s top threat during an early stretch when Madrid was dominating.

He went close to scoring early when he latched onto a lobbed pass by Messi, only for goalkeeper Keylor Navas to get his fingers on his rising strike and push the ball over the bar.

The Messi-Paulinho connection clicked again before halftime, when the Brazilian headed his teammate’s cross toward the goal where Navas did well to save it.

“I am very happy. I don’t have words to describe winning my first `clasico’ against a rival like Madrid,” Paulinho said. “Today my shots didn’t go in, but the most important thing is to help the team achieve great results at the biggest stadiums.”

In August, some of Barcelona’s fans and sports press questioned spending 40 million euros on Paulinho, who at 29 was playing in the Chinese league after a disappointing stint at Tottenham in the English Premier League.

With his large frame and more direct playing style, Paulinho didn’t fit the standard mould of the lightweight, ball-controlling midfielder that Barcelona tends to feature.

But he quickly proved his worth to the club by giving Valverde a big, box-to-box midfielder that Barcelona hasn’t had since the days of Yaya Toure several seasons ago.

Paulinho links up well with Messi on his well-timed runs into the area from the midfield, where his extra muscle helps holding midfielder Sergio Busquets fend off opposing attacks.

Paulinho made a difference almost from the start. He used his powerful build to hold off a tackle before scoring his first goal in his third appearance for Barcelona, a winner to complete a 2-1 comeback at Getafe.

He went on to add five more goals in 17 rounds, making him Barcelona’s third-leading scorer after Messi and Luis Suarez.

Even though they are teammates in the Brazil national side, the contrast between Paulinho and Neymar could not be greater.

Paulinho has none of the fancy dribbling, speed, or creative talent of his fellow countryman. But he helps Barcelona both with and without the ball and works much harder in defense than Neymar ever did.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines for Boxing Day ]

And his no-nonsense attitude and unquestionable work ethic is worlds away from Neymar’s showboating and taunting of rivals.

The result is evident in the team’s position: Barcelona is on course to reclaim the la Liga crown with a nine-point lead over Atletico Madrid, and a 14-point gap over fourth-place Madrid, before the season reaches its midway point.

“I have to thank my teammates for helping me build my confidence these months,” Paulinho said. “I am working hard to be able to help the team as much as I can.”

VIDEO: Chelsea score stunning team goal

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Take a bow, Chelsea.

Willian put the Blues 2-0 up at Brighton early on Saturday and the goal was a thing of beauty.

Latching onto an error from Brighton, Chelsea surged forward through Willian who played the ball into Eden Hazard.

The Belgian played a delicious back heel to Michy Batshuayi and the forward then followed suit to flick the ball into Willian’s path who fired home.

Take a look at the stunning goal in the video above.

Watch Live: Brighton v. Chelsea

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Brighton & Hove Albion host Chelsea at the Amex Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

With just one win in their last 12 games, Brighton are being dragged into a relegation battle, while Chelsea aren’t in glittering form with five draws on the spin in all competitions.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE

In team news, Brighton start with Tomer Hemed up top and have top scorer Glenn Murray on the bench. New club-record signing Jurgen Locadia isn’t illegible to make his Brighton debut after his signing was only confirmed late Friday, plus the former PSV Eindhoven forward is struggling with an injury..

Chelsea are without star goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who has suffered an ankle injury in training, with Willy Caballero coming in to replace him. Alvaro Morata and Pedro are suspended, while Ross Barkley is on the bench and he could make his Chelsea debut.


LINEUPS

Brighton: Ryan; Goldson, Duffy, Dunk, Suttner, Schelotto; Stephens, Propper; March, Gross, Hemed. Subs: Hunemeier, Kayal, Baldock, Murray, Izquierdo, Rosenior, Krul

Chelsea: Caballero; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Bakayoko, Kante, Alonso; Willian, Batshuayi, Hazard. SubsEduardo, David Luiz, Zappacosta, Sterling, Ampadu, Barkley, Musonda

PL Preview: Manchester City vs. Newcastle

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  • Newcastle has lost 8 PL away matches in a row
  • Man City last lost at home in PL play to Chelsea in Dec 2016
  • Newcastle has picked up 1 of a possible 30 points vs. PL top half this season

Manchester City has a great chance to rebound from its first loss of the season as they host struggling Newcastle at the Etihad on Saturday, live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, HERE

The Magpies have picked up their terrible mid-season form of late, but still remain just three points above the drop. They are unbeaten in three, with a win and two draws, and have lost just once in their last five.

Through Newcastle’s losing streak, the Magpies struggled to keep the ball out of their own net, with defensive issues all over the place. They suffered through a nine-game winless run where they conceded 19 goals. However, of late, the roles have reversed, and suddenly they can’t score. In their last four games, they have just two goals.

City, meanwhile, have a few injuries to deal with on the defensive side of things, where they cannot afford them. Fabian Delph went down in the last match and could be out for significant time, along with Vincent Kompany who continues to show his age and history of fitness issues.

INJURIES: Manchester City – OUT: Fabian Delph (knee), Benjamin Mendy (knee). QUESTIONABLE: David Silva (illness), Vincent Kompany (fitness). Newcastle – OUT: Jesus Gamez (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: Dwight Gayle (knock).


What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on build-up of injuries: “In these situations, it always depends on the mentality of the players, if they can make a step forward. If they can they play in positions that are not natural positions and the other guys help them, everything is going well.”

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez on not having a full squad: “When you have a short blanket, if you pull it to your face, your feet are cold, if you cover your feet, your top half is cold.”

Prediction

Newcastle has been ok of late, but not nearly enough to keep Manchester City out of the back of the net. This could get ugly, with the Citizens looking to rebound from their season’s first loss. 3-0 Man City with the possibility that it could get much worse if Newcastle gives up.

PL Preview: Burnley vs. Manchester United

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  • Burnley has 1 win vs. Man United in last 23 meetings
  • Manchester United has not conceded a goal in 2018
  • Paul Pogba is joint-top of the league with 9 assists

A critical top of the table battle comes our way from Turf Moor (!!) on Saturday as Manchester United travels to Burnley live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, HERE

Since losing at Chelsea back in early November, Manchester United in unbeaten away from home and has won four of the five road matches. Burnley, meanwhile, has lost three matches in a row to start the new year and has not won in Premier League play since December 12th against Stoke City.

The goalscoring form of each team is also in stark contrast. Manchester United has not allowed a goal in any competition in 2018, and last conceded back on Boxing Day in a 2-2 draw with this Burnley side. The Clarets, meanwhile, have just one goal in their last three Premier League games and just three goals in their last six.

INJURIES: Burnley – OUT: Chris Wood (knee), Stephen Ward (knee), Jonathan Walters (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Chris Taylor (ribs). Manchester United – OUT: Daley Blind (undisclosed), Eric Bailly (ankle), Michael Carrick (heart), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia.

What they’re saying

Burnley manager Sean Dyche on the gap in riches between clubs: “I don’t think any of us are surprised by the gap in the Premier League – I think it’s been there a long time and it’s getting harder year on year since the business model of football has changed.”

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho on focusing despite transfer rumors: “In this moment, [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan our player, [Alexis] Sanchez an Arsenal player and with a match tomorrow, I want to switch off and focus on the most important thing, which is the match.”

Prediction

Burnley may be coming back down to Earth, but they are still a formidable team with great organization, and Manchester United will be once again held to a draw, this time 1-1.