Beyond our doubts: Messi leads Barcelona to history, Champions League quarters

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It’s so easy now, after witnessing what became a route in Catalonia, to wonder why we ever doubted Barcelona, but we had good reason to think Milan would hold the two-goal lead they carried into today’s Champions League eliminator. Nobody had ever squandered that kind of a league. But perhaps more importantly, recent losses to Milan and Real Madrid (twice) provided hints Barcelona’s attack had been figured out, with good teams able to sit back and absorb the Catalans’ attack rather than waste time chasing tikis and takas.

We had every reason to think Barcelona would bow out of Champions League, but their 4-0 win (4-2, aggregate) reminded us, Milan, and the European soccer world that there’s one aspect of Barcelona’s attack that defies solution. The only options you have against Lionel Messi are containment, hope, and prayer that he doesn’t decide to do something special.

Three weeks ago at the San Siro, those options worked, but it only took five minutes for Messi to make his mark on Tuesday, the first touch on a shot from 19 yards placed immaculately into Christian Abbati’s upper-right hand corner. The ball left Messi’s foot so quickly, Milan’s defense was left frozen as the ball buckled the back of the net.

(MORE: Highlights of Messi’s brilliant opener.)

Messi added his second five minutes before half, a score produced by a Barcelona defense that was much more disruptive on Tuesday than it had been three weeks ago. In the 40th minute, as Milan attempted to transition the ball out of their final third, Andrés Iniesta forced a turnover, found Messi outside the area to the right of goal, and set up the Argentine for the equalizer. Using the lunging Philippe Mexes as a screen, Messi beat Abbiati well inside the right post, sending the matchup into halftime tied at two.

Ten minutes into the second, Barcelona’s defense created the winner, with a bold read from Javier Mascherano again disrupting Milan’s transition. The Barça defender intercepted a clearance and started a short movement that ended at the feet of David Villa. Open 15 yards out to the right of goal, Villa calmly passed the ball into the left side netting, putting Barcelona in front.

Milan’s approach was never one to play from behind. Despite three subs that changed their side, the Rossoneri couldn’t gain control of the match. The closest they came to an equalizer was a late cross for Robinho, a ball that was cut out by Jordi Alba before Victor Valdes’s help was needed.

In the 93rd minute, Alba got his reward, sprinting the length of the field to complete a counter that sealed Barcelona’s place in the quarterfinals.

(MORE: Galatasaray compounds Schalke’s season of contradictions)

With the win, Barcelona became the first team to turn around a 2-0 first leg deficit and advance in the Champions League, a fact that should haunt a Milan side that couldn’t muster the resiliency they leveraged three weeks ago. The Italians never posed the same threat on the counter, and the space between their midfield three and central defense proved easier to exploit. Perhaps it was too much to ask them to maintain the same standard they performed to in Milan.

And perhaps it was too much to ask them to stop Messi twice in a row. In Italy, the Ballon d’Or winner was surprisingly ineffectual. In Spain, he defined the match in the same way we expect him to define any match he starts.

Villa may have got the winner, and Alba may have provided the insurance, but it was Messi who steered his side to history. Maybe we were wrong to doubt.

VIDEO: England players ask for US support during World Cup

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With England making the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup on Sunday after hammering Panama 6-1, now may be a little too late to get on the Three Lions bandwagon.

Well, maybe not…

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Comedian James Corden spent some time with the England team and put together the video above to try and entice Americans to support the English national team this summer with the USMNT, obviously, not at the World Cup in Russia.

With Jamie Vardy acting like a cowboy, Kyle Walker refusing to say soccer and Eric Dier getting a football helmet stuck on his head, it’s safe to say they had fun.

Japan, Senegal deliver enthralling draw

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  • Senegal, Japan both have four points
  • Mane, Wague twice put Senegal ahead
  • Inui, Honda equalize twice for Japan

Japan and Senegal played to an entertaining 2-2 draw in Yekaterinburg to leave Group H finely balanced heading into the final round of games.

Sadio Mane and Moussa Wague twice put Senegal ahead but Japan fought back with goals from Takashi Inui and Keisuke Honda to grab a point.

Both teams now have four points heading into their final group games, with Japan facing Poland and Senegal playing against Colombia on Thursday.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Senegal started superbly and Mane was denied by a timely block when he got a shot away from close range early on. But the Liverpool man wasn’t to be denied his first World Cup goal.

Shortly after a cross from the right was only half cleared and Youssouf Sabaly’s shot was punched out by Eiji Kawashima but straight into Mane as the ball ricocheted off him and in. A slightly fortuitous goal from Mane but Senegal deserved the lead.

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Japan had a few opportunities from distance and grew into the game as an equalizer arrived before half time.

Nagatomo controlled the ball superbly and he played it inside to Inui who curled home a beauty into the far corner to make it 1-1.

Senegal then had a great chance on the break but Niang’s shot was saved by on the onrushing Kawashima.

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At the start of the second half Osaka’s header lacked power as N’Diaye saved, then at the other end Niang volleyed over in an end-to-end encounter.

Osako then squandered a wonderful chance after a fine move down the right saw Shibasaki cross to him six yards out but the Japanese forward somehow missed the ball entirely.

Japan went even closer soon after as Inui again curled a beautiful shot in on goal from the left side of the box but this time his effort pinged off the crossbar and went over.

Wague then put Senegal ahead as they worked the ball from the left to the far post and the 19-year-old right back arrived to smash home as the Lions of Teranga celebrated.

Osako had a shot superbly blocked by Salif Sane but then Senegal shot themselves in the foot as N’Diaye came for a cross and got it all wrong.

That led to Honda having a simple tap in to make it 2-2 and that is how an entertaining encounter finished.

Report: Salah may quit Egypt national team

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Mohamed Salah is said to be considering his future with the Egyptian national team.

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The Liverpool and Egypt star, who wasn’t fit enough to play in the Pharaohs opener against Uruguay but scored in their 3-1 defeat to hosts Russia earlier this week, is said to be fed up with being used as a political pawn as Egypt based themselves in Chechnya during the tournament.

A report from CNN claims that Salah isn’t happy with what’s been going on in Egypt’s World Cup base in Grozny, as the report states he feels he is being used as a political symbol for Chechnya.

The leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, had the following to say via social media about the 26-year-old superstar.

“Mohamed Salah is an honorary citizen of the Chechen Republic! That’s right! I gave Mohamed Salah a copy of the order and a pin at a celebratory dinner that I gave in honour of the Egyptian team.”

Salah will likely play against Saudi Arabia in Egypt’s final Group A game on Monday, but his future with the Egyptian national team seems to be in doubt.

VIDEO: Mane, Inui score in gripping Japan-Senegal clash

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Sadio Mane and Takashi Inui both scored in the first half of a gripping Group H clash on Sunday.

Senegal took the lead via Mane’s first World Cup goal which came in slightly fortuitous fashion but Japan hit back as Inui curled home a beauty.

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Below you can see both goals in the battle for supremacy in Group H.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.