Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

Players are bigger than the club at Paris Saint-Germain

1 Comment

PARIS (AP) It’s a scenario that has been repeating itself at Paris Saint-Germain.

A scenario where a player becomes bigger than the club, and is basically allowed to do anything he wants.

It used to work that way with Zlatan Ibrahimovic when the Sweden international was the most emblematic figure of the French league. Now it’s Neymar’s turn to call all the shots at PSG, and it does not seem to be a problem for the club’s Qatari owners.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings – 2017-18 ]

It was with their blessings that Neymar, the world’s most expensive player who just turned 26, hosted a lavish birthday party on Sunday, less than 48 hours before a French Cup game at Sochaux, and only a few days before PSG’s biggest game of the season in the Champions League.

Neymar invited about 250 guests including all of his teammates as well as PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

Many videos of the players partying and dancing late circulated on social media. On one of them, left back Yuri Berchiche appeared to be drunk. The videos drew the ire of Sochaux captain Florian Tardieu, who said it showed a lack of respect toward his team.

For PSG coach Unai Emery, who attended the party, it was not a problem at all. He said the event was a rare joyful gathering for his players. “It’s good for our collective mindset to have shared this moment with Neymar,” Emery said.

Fortunately for PSG, the party had no immediate impact on the team’s results. Neymar – who joined from Barcelona for a world record 222 million euros ($260 million) last summer – was granted permission to skip the cup match, and Angel Di Maria scored a hat trick as PSG eased into the French Cup quarterfinals with a 4-1 win.

But Neymar’s party could come back to haunt Al-Khelaifi if PSG fails to produce a good result at Real Madrid next week when the teams meet in their Champions League last-16 first-leg tie.

In any case, the party organized about a month after PSG stars returned from their winter holidays, once again underlined the players’ power at the club.

When Ibrahimovic was at PSG and Laurent Blanc was coach, everything revolved around the athletic forward. Ibrahimovic could mock journalists and the quality of the French league without anyone at the club publicly finding anything wrong with it. Ibrahimovic was allowed to go back to his native Sweden on hunting trips, while Thiago Silva enjoyed tailor-made modifications to his training program.

[ MORE: Zaha injured ahead of brutal Palace fixtures ]

A serious incident during Blanc’s time spoke volumes about PSG’s lack of authority on its players and stained the club’s image. Just before a Champions League game against Chelsea two years ago, defender Serge Aurier abused Blanc and insulted teammates during a live session with fans on social media. Instead of being fired, Aurier got away with a six-week suspension.

Nothing has really changed under Emery’s leadership. For instance, PSG’s all-time leading scorer, Edinson Cavani, has kept the habit of returning late from his Christmas holidays, doing it again this winter without much consequence.

Emery has failed to make a clear decision on who should be PSG’s first-choice penalty-taker. In September, Cavani and Neymar argued over who should take a penalty kick, and the pair clashed again in November during an 8-0 win against Dijon. That night, PSG was 7-0 up and Cavani needed one goal to become PSG’s outright all-time leading scorer. But instead of showing generosity and letting Cavani take a penalty, Neymar guarded the ball and blanked his teammate when he approached.

Sebastien Tarrago, a reporter who has been covering PSG for years for L’Equipe newspaper, said Emery was not the only one to blame for the anarchy.

“Club officials are obviously the main people responsible for creating the possibility for players to have too much power,” he said. “If club officials were strong, it would never happen.”

Money from Wembley replay will “support Rochdale for 2 or 3 years”

Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Worst-case scenario for Tottenham Hotspur: drawing League One side Rochdale in Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round clash; best-case scenario for the Dale: drawing the Premier League giants and forcing a replay at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

For a club the size of Rochdale — 10,200-seat stadium, and never been above the third tier of English soccer — the financial impact of raking in half of the game’s gate receipts “will support the club for the next two or three years,” according to manager Keith Hill — quotes from the Guardian:

“I don’t know how much it is worth but a lot of money has gone into the new pitch. That was a heavy investment for us. Hopefully the money we make will support the club for the next two or three years. We will cut our cloth accordingly and we won’t be in debt.”

As for Steve Davies’ 93rd-minute equalizer, Hill was adamant that it was nothing short of what they “deserved”:

“It was a feeling of reward, not relief, because the performance deserved at least the opportunity for us to go to Wembley for a replay. I’ve always wanted to do that against a Premier League team and manager. Why not take them on and try to win? It could have been football suicide but I thought we gained their respect and to score the goal we did was tremendous. The players were magnificent.”

Tottenham Hotspur, soccer philanthropists.

Try, try again: Messi seeks 1st goal vs. Chelsea in 9th attempt

Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LONDON (AP) As unlikely as it sounds, Lionel Messi is still waiting to score his first goal against Chelsea after drawing a blank in eight previous Champions League matches.

The five-time World Player of the Year is likely to get another chance to break his duck this week and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes the past will count for little when Barcelona visits Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.

“I hope we maintain this tradition but we are speaking about a fantastic player,” Conte said ahead of the last-16, first-leg Champions League game. “The most important thing is the present.

“We must have great respect but at the same time we must be excited to play this type of game and take on this type of challenge. It won’t be easy because we know very well this player, we are talking about one of the best in the world.”

The teams have produced some epic games in the past although they have not met in the Champions League since Chelsea pulled off a remarkable backs-to-the-wall semifinal victory over Barcelona on the way to winning the trophy in 2012.

Messi missed a penalty in the second leg at the Nou Camp as the London club overcame the first-half dismissal of captain John Terry, and a 2-0 deficit, to draw the game 2-2 and secure an unforgettable 3-2 aggregate win.

Bayern Munich hosts Besiktas in Tuesday’s other game while the following day sees Manchester United traveling to Sevilla, and Shakhtar Donetsk playing host to Roma.

Two weeks ago, the prospect of a Chelsea win over Barca would have been unthinkable after Conte’s men had slumped to successive defeats by two of the Premier League’s lesser lights.

The London club was still smarting from a 3-0 home loss against Bournemouth when it traveled to Watford and succumbed to an embarrassing 4-1 reverse.

Chelsea has got back on track since then, though, easing past West Bromwich Albion 3-0 in the league last Monday before swatting aside second-tier Hull 4-0 in the FA Cup four days later.

Conte has several selection dilemmas. He must choose between captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger for a place at the back, and between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud up front.

Cesc Fabregas will also be desperate to play against his former team but may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Barca has lost only once in 38 matches this season since falling in the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid in August. It has a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga and has reached the final of the Copa del Rey.

Messi is having another stellar campaign, scoring 27 times in all competitions, and he helped set up two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar.

Philippe Coutinho is ineligible for Barca following his move from Liverpool.

Mourinho claiming injury crisis ahead of CL showdown

Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The next three weeks will go a long way toward defining Jose Mourinho’s second season at Manchester United, with the Red Devils facing not only fellow top-four aspirers Chelsea and Liverpool, but also contesting their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla.

[ MORE: VAR provider admits incorrect graphic displayed on TV ]

Thus, it’s not exactly the most convenient time for the words “injury crisis” to rear their ugly heads yet again, but that’s the challenge Mourinho claims he faces ahead of Wednesday’s CL clash.

Paul Pogba missed Saturday’s FA Cup victory with a last-minute illness; Marcus Rashford is dealing with a leg injury and remains questionable, as are Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Marouane Fellaini are all but officially out, according to Mourinho — quotes from ESPN.co.uk:

“I didn’t rest one single player so we had today every player available here. I didn’t rest anyone. I brought two kids that played on Friday 90 minutes [for the under-23s] because I don’t have another player, so we arrive at this crucial moment with some problems.”

“Can we recover some of them to Wednesday? I believe so. I think Rashford, Herrera, Valencia — I think they have a chance.

“Paul, I don’t know. Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane, Zlatan — I don’t think they have any chance.”

Mourinho dealt with a similar rash of injuries very late on last season, as his side barreled its way into, and eventually won, the Europa League final, securing a place in the CL this season. With a top-four finish all but out of reach at the time, Mourinho opted to rest his bare-bones group of first-team regulars in Premier League action and prioritize Europe’s “other” competition.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

This time around, United sit second in the PL table, just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur, and the path to winning the CL will prove far more difficult than taking on the likes of Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax.

Serie A: Napoli, Juve hold serve in 1-point title race

Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona now 31 games unbeaten | Real Madrid 17 points behind ]

Napoli 1-0 SPAL 2013

The battle for Serie A supremacy isn’t ending anytime soon, as Napoli and Juventus continue to match one another (nine straight wins for each side) in Europe’s only remaining major title race.

On Sunday, they even traded 1-0 victories — Napoli at home to SPAL 2013, with Juve triumphing over Torino in the Turin derby.

Brazilian midfielder Allan bagged the only goal for Napoli after just six minutes, finishing off a mesmerizing, free-flowing move that’s become synonymous with Napoli this season. The video-assisting referee came into play just after the hour mark, when Marek Hamsik headed home to make it 2-0 before the VAR wiped it away for offside.

Napoli’s current nine-game winning streak is the longest in club history.

Torino 0-1 Juventus

Juve’s victory came at something of a cost, though, as star striker Gonzalo Higuain was lost to an ankle injury after just a quarter-hour (the injury occurred after just three minutes), followed by a potentially serious knee injury for Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Higuain, in second-half stoppage time. Higuain isn’t expected to miss significant time, with the club calling it a twisted ankle.

In between the injuries came Alex Sandro‘s 33rd-minute winner, a tap-in from close range masterfully set up by Bernardeschi. One additional positive for Juve: Sunday also saw Paulo Dybala return after missing five weeks with a hamstring injury. The Argentine star entered as a second-half substitute.

“Paulo played 30 minutes at a good level,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said. “I’m pleased with his and everyone else’s performance. This is a good result against a well-organized Torino side.”

Elsewhere in Serie A

AC Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
Atalanta 1-1 Fiorentina
Bologna 2-1 Sassuolo
Benevento 3-2 Crotone