Offshore drilling, Spain: Barcelona 3, at Málaga 1

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The typical formula for combating Barcelona is absorb their attack, stay very deep and compact, and on rely on counters. While the approach rarely leads to results, teams like Celtic, Chelsea, and Rubin Kazan have had success. Only José Mourinho’s Real Madrid has been able to go blow-for-blow with their rivals (and during the Special One’s first year in Madrid, it was too close to literal blows).

That’s why it’s surprising when a team like Málaga not only plays Barcelona straight up but is able to compete with Spain’s runaway leaders. For over a half on Sunday, only an aberrational first half mistake separated the two sides.

In the second, however, a Cesc Fabregas goal doubled Barcelona’s lead, and although Málaga again dialed up the intensity after a brief period of shock, Barcelona a superficially comfortable 3-1 victory.

It’s not exaggeration to say this game could have gone either way. Ignacio Camacho’s ill-advised first half back pass (after a collision between Málaga teammates on a Willy Caballero goal kick) gifted Lionel Messi the half’s only goal. Before that, Málaga was almost as dangerous as Barcelona, frequently able to get at their opponent down Barça’s right flank.

Given the tenacity with which Málaga was playing, the game may have broke differently were it not for one unfortunate, atypical mistake.

Man of the Match: Barcelona was playing, right? OK, then: Lionel Messi was Man of the Match.

The choice is both the default and justified. While the opening goal was gifted — Camacho’s backpass easily intercepted before Messi rounded Caballero at the edge of the area to finish into an open net — Messi assisted on each of Barça’s other goals. In the second half, a nice 20-yard diagonal allowed Fábregas to race past Sergio Sánchez and finish against Caballero’s left post. On Thiago Alcantera’s 82nd minute goal, Messi laid off a pass to the substitute midfielder ahead of his 19-yard blast.

(MORE: Video of Messi’s goal Sunday)

By Messi’s standards, it was an average day. He less dominant than opportunistic, but in match where Málaga’s tenaciousness held most of his teammates in check, the Ballon d’ Or winner was still the game’s best player.

Threesome of knowledge

1. Beware Málaga in Champions League – Spain-based Guardian and Sports Illustrated correspondent Sid Lowe was high on Málaga’s chances to go far in Champions League when December’s knockout round draw was made. Manuel Pellegrini’s team had cruised through their group, but against a floundering Milan, a Zenit squad in turmoil, and an outgunned Anderlecht, it was difficult to gauge how ready Málaga was for the next phase.

If Málaga plays like they did today, they’ll be a major threat in the knockout round. Few teams have players like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets in midfield. The elite talents of that trio were the only thing that kept Barcelona in control at the Rosaleda. Were it not for the midfielder-esque skills of central defenders Gerard Pique and (to a lesser extent) Javier Mascherano, Barça would have been thrown off by high pressure from Roque Santa Cruz and  (and Jeremy Toulalan and Camacho in behind them). Less talented teams would have crumbled.

Even Real Madrid at their best — as talented but slower than Barcelona — would have had trouble. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are capable of dealing with Málaga, but teams like Manchester United, Juventus, and Paris Saint Germain? They’d struggle.

Porto – Málaga’s Round of 16 opponent? They’re in trouble.

2. That extra dimension of Andrés Iniesta – Were it not for Andrés Iniesta’s ability to turn upfield and move the ball vertically, Barcelona may have been relegated to knocking the ball sideways to try and get around Toulalan and Camacho. But at various moments in the match (most importantly, during Málaga’s last surge in the middle of the second half), Iniesta’s ability to dribble through Málaga’s initial pressure was the only thing that allowed Barcelona to keep the ball.

It was an example of the exquisite balance in Barcelona’s midfield. Neither Xavi nor Busquets are capable of carrying the ball like Iniesta, yet Iniesta can’t run a game like Xavi. And neither man’s capable of providing Busquets’ support.

Today, Barcelona needed Iniesta to shine. When teams pack it in, they’ll need Xavi to unlock them. And against teams that can win the ball and counter through the middle, Busquets will need to step up.

3. Barcelona’s defense coming around – Early this season, Barcelona’s defense looked suspect, but because their opponents rarely had the ball, the goals allowed numbers stayed low. Yet when you watched Tito Vilanova’s team you couldn’t help but wonder what teams like Bayern Munich would do to them in Champions League.

Now the defense is coming around. During Málaga’s first half advances, the back stayed organized as attacks into the space behind Daniel Alves forced the defense to reorganize. Gerard Pique (playing right-center half) calmly forced the play away from goal, where Sergio Busquets dropping into the back left the team prepared to deal with Málaga’s followup.

Instead of seeing their defenders isolated and desperate, Barcelona fans saw their team coolly deal with the type of attacks they’ll see against the world’s better teams. And with their defense playing better, those fans have reason to expect their guys will hold up.

Packaged for takeaway

  • By the end of the game, Barcelona’s possession number was at a typical 64 percent, though the shots on goal only favored them 4-2. Most of possession came in the second half after Fábregas’s goal temporarily disillusioned Málaga.
  • At times, there seems to be little difference between the team’s two right backs: Spanish internationals Jordi Alba (Barcelona) and Nacho Monreal (Malaga). But in the second half, Alba flashed the quality that sets him apart, coming from nowhere to overlap Iniesta in the box during one mid-half movement. Nothing came of it, but the speed with which Alba joined the attack created a “yeah, that’s what makes him different” moment.
  • Were it not for some strong reads early from Caballero, Barcelona may have rolled out to a typically easy victory. Three times in the first half hour Caballero charged off his line to deal with attacks. Still, it was an early stop on Lionel Messi that really deserves some attention. It wasn’t a leaping save, so you won’t see it in a highlight, but in going to ground on his right arm before reaching across his body to stop the ball with his left, Caballero showed the type of athleticism that’s often overlooked. A lot of goalkeepers can make the leaping stop, but to be able to both divert an attacker and recover to block his followup is something that would ask too much of a lot of pure shot-stoppers.

Peru’s World Cup foes lobby to overturn Guerrero’s ban

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Following last week’s decision handed down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Peru captain and talisman Paolo Guerrero has been banned from the 2018 World Cup — at the age of 34, almost certainly his last opportunity to star on the world’s biggest stage.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT hosts Bolivia in shadows of World Cup hype ]

However, in the days since that decision, a number of Guerrero’s fellow professionals and World Cup stars — France and Denmark captains Hugo Lloris and Simon Kjaer, and Australia’s Mile Jedinak — have written to FIFA, on behalf of FIFPro, the world player union, in hopes of rendering Guerrero eligible to pay at next month’s tournament in Russia.

“We respectfully ask the Fifa Council to show compassion,” the trio wrote. “In our view it would be plainly wrong to exclude him from what should be a pinnacle of his career.”

[ MORE: Ronaldo hints at Real Madrid exit | Bale does the same ]

That Lloris, Kjaer and Jedinak are the players lobbying in favor of Guerrero is particularly notable given the fact that Peru will face France, Denmark and Australia in Group C.

Guerrero tested positive for cocaine late last year, after a tea he drank was tainted and triggered a fail drug test.

SKC, Crew SC play to 0-0 draw; VAR steals the show (again)

Photo by Brandon Wade/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, KAN. — The game in 100 words (or less): Nothing ruins a good game of soccer more than controversies involving the referee — and now that VAR is active within MLS, yet another failure of the video-review system to correct the most “clear and obvious” of wrong decisions. There is no longer any rhyme or reason in deciding whether or not to utilize what could be a very helpful tool. Check the third video further down this page to comprehend the absurdity of VAR in Sporting Kansas City’s 0-0 draw with Columbus Crew SC on Sunday. As for the actual soccer which was played, Tim Melia made one save to deny Gyasi Zardes with a point-blank header early in the first half, and a second to deny Zardes rom the penalty spot just before halftime. Despite being a back-and-forth affair between the league’s second- and third-place teams with a chance to take the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, there were just six shots on target in total and genuine scoring chances were few and far between.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT hosts Bolivia in shadows of World Cup hype ]

Three moments that mattered

43′ — Zardes wins a PK, but Melia makes the save — Melia was responsible for giving away the penalty kick, and he more than made up for it by denying Zardes moments later.

45+6′ — Higuain puts studs into Espinoza, sees red — Originally not called a foul, changed to a red card following video review. On the softer side of red cards (just an opinion).

59′ — Martinez takes a swing at Sinovic, but no video review — At this point, it’s just time to disband the entire VAR experiment. It’s turned MLS into a clown show and an embarrassment. Signed, someone who was initially in favor of VAR, assuming MLS would utilize it properly.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tim Melia

Goalscorers: None

Rayo Vallecano win promotion back to La Liga

Photo credit: Rayo Vallecano / @RayoVallecano
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MADRID (AP) Rayo Vallecano earned promotion to Spain’s top division after beating Lugo 1-0 in a second-tier league game on Sunday.

Alex Moreno’s goal for the hosts in the 40th minute sealed Rayo’s return to La Liga after two seasons away.

Huesca had already secured promotion last weekend with a 2-0 victory at Lugo.

The third team to move up will be the winner of a two-round playoff between the four teams that finish the season from third to sixth.

Malaga, Las Palmas and Deportivo La Coruna were all relegated from the top flight this season.

FOLLOW LIVE: West leaders SKC host East’s 2nd-best Crew SC

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KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City host Columbus Crew SC, the Eastern Conference’s second-place side, at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday with both sides capable of overtaking Atlanta United for top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race.

[ FOLLOW: SKC vs. Crew SC in top-of-the-table clash ]

Sporting KC, who are unbeaten in three straight and have lost just once since opening day (11 games), lead expansion side Los Angeles FC in the West. Meanwhile, Crew SC enter Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash unbeaten in their last six games (four wins) and trail the league leaders from Atlanta by a single point.

Hit the link above to follow along throughout the afternoon, and check back with PST for coverage after the final whistle.