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Conte gets tactics spot on but Messi has last laugh

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LONDON — Before the game Antonio Conte‘s tactics were the talk of the press room at Stamford Bridge, plus pubs and television studios around the world.

After the game his decision to play Eden Hazard in a false nine position, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and leave out his two star center forwards, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, was lauded. This was a reminder of the man who led Chelsea to Premier League glory last season and also a reminder of Chelsea’s successful past against the Catalan giants as they’re now unbeaten in their last eight UCL encounters as the clash of styles continues.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Recap

Conte is under pressure with just five wins in his last 13 games in all competitions, but this was a tactical masterclass from the Italian coach as his side totally bought into his plan and without a mistake from Andreas Christensen late on, it would have been an archetypal Italian defensive display leading to a 1-0 win to take to the Nou Camp.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Conte believed his players were incredibly unlucky to not win the game as Willian struck the post twice in the first half and they threatened multiple times on the counter.

“We were very close to playing the perfect game. One mistake and we know very well when you make a mistake against Barcelona and players like Messi, Suarez and Iniesta you pay. It is a pity because tonight, at the end of the game, we are disappointed for the final result,” Conte said. “We hit the post twice with Willian. There is a bit of disappointment but I think that this game must give us confidence to trust that in the second leg that qualification is open. It won’t be easy. We must be realistic. We are talking about Barcelona. Tonight we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, but at the same time you continue to have the right feeling when you win the ball to create chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at the Nou Camp.”

The one wrench in Conte’s plan was always going to be one incredible player: Lionel Messi.

Without a goal in eight games (730 minutes in total) against Chelsea, the five-time World Player of the Year stroked home a killer away goal 15 minutes from time to swing the tie back into Barcelona’s favor after Conte’s masterclass. Messi, 30, once again arrived at the pivotal moment for the La Liga leaders and the Argentine star sprung into life as Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta made the most of Christensen’s mistake.

Messi’s presence on the ball sparked nervousness within the Chelsea defense but it looked like he would leave empty hand once again until he was gifted a chance to silence the doubters.

Barcelona had 73 percent of possession on Tuesday and attempted 887 passes to Chelsea’s 325. They looked comfortable in a cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge and even though they were vulnerable on the counter, they never looked too flustered but only had two real chances via Paulinho in the first half and Suarez in the second.

Despite following the blueprint to get a result against Barcelona almost to a tee, Cesc Fabregas believes the Blues will have to be more expansive at the Nou Camp in the second leg to get through to the quarterfinals.

“We have showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through,” Fabregas told BT Sport. “You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70 percent of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

As for Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde, he admitted that he was a happy man to escape West London with a draw but urged his side to respect Chelsea’s style of play in the second leg.

“It has been a clash of styles this game, two different teams,” Ernesto said. “We tried to control the game, had a lot of possession and got close to the area. We were just lacking a little bit of extra quality in the final third. They defended very well. The good thing is we managed to get an error and get a goal out of them. We will go back to the Camp Nou happy.”

Conte was happy his players followed his gameplan and believes they must believe they can deliver killers blows on the break in Barcelona in two weeks time with Willian, Pedro and Hazard key to the plan.

“I must be pleased because the players did a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared,” Conte said. “In 15 days we must be ready to prepare for another game against Barcelona. We must be prepared to suffer together but in the moment you are suffering, you must know that the moment you are in possession you can create a chance to score.”

Chelsea need at least one goal to go through or to take the game to extra time, but given their spirited display at Stamford Bridge there’s renewed hope that Conte can mastermind another defensive masterplan to get them into the last eight for the first time since 2014.

Miazga: “We’re all ready to make an impression” with USMNT

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Last October, for reasons unknown, Matt Miazga didn’t make the U.S. Men’s National Team squad for its final two World Cup qualifiers.

Five months later, he’s risen to the top of the centerback depth chart.

[MORE: Digging into the USMNT roster]

The hulking centerback spoke on Tuesday as the USMNT started off its training camp in Cary, N.C., noting that the youth-laden squad wanted to make an impression to stay in the picture moving forward. With four years until the next World Cup and still more than a year until competitive matches, there is still plenty of shuffling and expanding of the player pool to do before then.

Have a listen to Miazga and enjoy the sights and sounds of the USMNT training camp ahead of its friendly match against Paraguay.


Banker Gaetano Micciche elected Serie A president

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MILAN (AP) Bank boss Gaetano Micciche has been elected president of Serie A.

Micciche, the president of Banca IMI, was chosen unanimously on Monday by the Italian league’s 20 clubs.

He succeeds Maurizio Beretta, who left the position nearly a year ago.

[ MORE: Serie A scores, schedule ]

The league has been under emergency leadership, first by former Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio then by Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago.

Malago recommended Micciche for the position.

The federation remains under emergency leadership following Tavecchio’s resignation in the wake of Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Report: Liverpool to resist all offers for Salah

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Liverpool has a message for any club looking to sign Mohamed Salah this summer: Not gonna happen.

The Merseyside club has reportedly said it will “not sell Salah under any circumstances this summer” as the Reds look to hold off the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, according to The Telegraph. Salah’s four-goal tally against Watford on Saturday took his goal total to an incredible 28 in 32 Premier League games, with another seven goals in cup competitions.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Liverpool famously kept Barcelona – and Arsenal – off Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan striker wanted to leave in 2013, but Liverpool was only able to stop Barcelona from signing Philippe Coutinho for six months.

As things stand, Liverpool are qualified for the 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League with the club sitting in a top four Premier League place, and keeping Salah is absolutely vital if the Reds want to make a deep run in the competition and compete for a Premier League title. It remains to be seen though if Salah is happy to stay at Liverpool or if a big-money offer from Spain or France can tempt him otherwise to set himself and his family financially for life.

Report: Sarachan’s contract with USMNT extended through June

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U.S. Soccer will wait until after the World Cup to decide on a new head coach for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that U.S. Soccer had extended interim coach Dave Sarachan’s contract through June, after his original deal was set to expire this month. Sarachan has led the U.S. since the resignation of Bruce Arena last October. Sarachan was Arena’s long-time top assistant coach with the LA Galaxy and USMNT before taking the reigns.

[READ: Manneh added to USMNT squad]

Sarachan has led the U.S. to a pair of draws with Portugal and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with two U.S. starting lineups stocked with youngsters as the preparation for the 2022 World Cup gets underway.

Sarachan and the U.S. are currently holding a training camp in Cary, N.C. ahead of a friendly match next Tuesday against Paraguay. Sarachan will also coach the U.S. against Bolivia, Ireland and France before departing.

By extending Sarachan through June, it makes it more likely that U.S. Soccer will either look abroad for its next coach or pick a coach who is currently a free agent – like Caleb Porter – or already within the system – like Tab Ramos. It’s possible, but unlikely, that U.S. Soccer could sway Peter Vermes, Oscar Pareja or Gregg Berhalter to leave their clubs halfway through the season for the national team job, and it’s equally unlikely that U.S. Soccer would hold the position open until the next MLS offseason.