Lionel Messi injury leaves PSG-Barcelona result open to interpretation

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For the second straight round, Barcelona will return to Spain with more questions than answers. While today’s 90-minute score is far kinder to the Blaugrana than during their Round of 16 scare, today’s 2-2 draw at Paris Saint-Germain comes with four ominous words: Lionel Messi is hurt.

The Barcelona star came off at halftime after putting his team up 1-0 in the 38th minute. The final moments of his day were spent near the sideline pushing at what appeared to be a right hamstring problem.

With Cesc Fábregas on in the second half, Barça and PSG looked destined to take the one-goal game back to Catalonia. Then a late rush of goals left the sides on even footing: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 78th minute goal fulled PSG even; a late Xavi Hernández penalty kick seemed to give Barcelona the win; but Blaise Matuidi’s stoppage time tally eventually provided PSG’s silver lining.

But until we know more about Messi’s injury, it’s impossible to put this result in context. If Messi can’t play eight days from now, Paris Saint-Germain are in great shape. True, they were drawn in their home leg and allowed two away goals, but for much of the match at the Parc de Princes, they seemed to be the better side. Messi’s opener against the run of play changed that dynamic, but with the teams even ahead of kickoff next Wednesday, PSG has reason to hope their plan can send them into the semifinals.

(MORE: Bayern worlds ahead of Juventus.)

Ancelotti’s plans go to waste

If Messi plays, however, that plan my prove as irrelevant as it was on Tuesday. So what if PSG were the better team over the first 38 minutes? Ezequiel Lavezzi’s shot off the woodwork in the fifth minute ultimately didn’t matter. Lucas Moura’s success down the right? Ibrahimovic’s 18th minute direct kick, forcing a diving stop from Víctor Valdes? Or the shot Ibrahimovic scuffed wide in the 25h after being set up eight yards?

source: APWith two pieces of gold in the 38th minute, Barcelona rendered all that insignificant. That’s when Daniel Alves, with the outside of this right foot, curled a ball over a defense pushing out from a corner kick. Messi sprinted by Moura and Javier Pastore, past a PSG defense that’d failed to reestablish its shape, and onto Alves’s ball. He drilled his left-footed volley into the ground, off Sirigu’s left post, and in for the opening goal.

As the teams went in for halftime, you couldn’t help but wonder what was going through the mind of Carlo Ancelotti, the PSG coach whose plan seemed so right from the get-go. His team was dropping very deep in defense, his back four willing to camp inside the penalty area long before Barcelona’s attack forced them to retreat. Ancelotti allowed his central defenders to come into midfield and challenge the withdrawn Messi, while the team’s counterattack was generating threat after threat with Moura on the right. Sometimes those threats resulted in shots on goal, other times they won free kicks that made the surprise selection of David Beckham seem prescient.

But just Lionel Messi can dominate a match (his Tuesday goal lifting his season total to a context-defying 59), the world’s best player can just as readily serve as an equalizer. For so many reasons, Paris Saint-Germain looked more likely to find the first goal, with Barcelona’s only hints of potential being Andrés Iniesta’s 20-plus-yard shots taken in front of a recoiling midfield. Yet with a sharp angle finish that did justice to the brilliant ball he was served, Messi’s moment of magic proved more valuable than 38 minutes from PSG’s 11 stars.

If it weren’t for Víctor Valdes’s work before the goal, Messi’s may not have been the opener. Defender Gerard Piqué was particularly strong, giving one of his better performances of the season. The near 70 percent possession Barça held during the first half also limited their exposure. And Alves’s pass? It was the best of the Champions League season.

But ultimately, it was Messi who made all that work pay off.

(MORE: Three goals in 15 minutes close PSG-Barça – Highlights)

source: Getty ImagesLate match explosion

Barça’s clean sheet was ruined in the 79th minute after being left to defend a restart without two defenders. Given how the ball was served, it’s unlikely Javier Mascherano or Jordi Alba (injured in the preceding sequence) could have helped when Thiago Silva provided the high point of his stand-out performance, uncoiling on a ball from 12 yards out. The resulting rebound off the left post came to Ibrahimovic, who pulled the Parisians even.

Barcelona regained their lead just before fulltime when Xavi Hernández converted from the spot, the penalty kick rewarded after a clumsy Sirigu takedown of Alexis Sanchez following a backheel from Fábregas. Yet minutes later, a ball knocked down by Ibrahimovic for Blaise Matuidi set up the midfielder for a deflected shot that beat Valdes.

The way PSG scored their goals will be particularly concerning to Barcelona. Defending aerial balls will always be a problem for them, but with Carles Puyol, it becomes a major liability. Silva’s play on the 79th minute restart came as Gerard Piqué and little else had to defend Silva, Alex, and Ibrahimovic. Then in stoppage time, a ball lofted from the right by Christophe Jallet allowed Ibrahimovic to set up Matuidi.

(MORE: Highlights of Bayern’s cruise past Juve.)

Just deserts and moving on

A sliver of controversy will follow the tie to Barcelona, with Ibrahimovic appearing to have been offside position ahead of his goal. Yet the result was no less than the Parisians deserved. While the teams played an even match after Messi’s opener, it was PSG that came out the better team with a superior plan. Had they broken through with one of their early chances, Barcelona would have been left to solve an often debilitating scenario: Breaking down a deep, tightly organized team with a group particularly ill-equipped to bust bunkers.

But thanks to Messi, Barcelona got on the board first, a fact that brings us full circle. Until we know Messi’s status for leg two, it’s impossible to assess the value of today’s result. If he’s healthy, Barcelona did well to get two goals in Paris. If he can’t go, they may be left wishing they’d got more than one score in the 45 minutes where they had their star.

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.

Ljungberg hails ‘amazing’ teen Saka after game-changing performance

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Arsenal phenom Bukayo Saka‘s big day spurred the Gunners to a top seed in the Europa League knockout rounds.

Arsenal went behind on two deflected goals in the second half’s first 25 minutes, but Saka answered with a goal and an assist in three minutes to take a point from Belgium in a 2-2 draw at Standard Liege.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Standard Liege 2-2 Arsenal ]

Saka was at the heart of it of all good things Arsenal, the 18-year-old handed plenty of responsibility. despite his tender age.

“He was amazing,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg. “He was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and full-back. He’s a tremendous talent.”

Saka had four key passes to go with his goal and assist, winning six of eight duels while producing two tackles and an interception.

Ljungberg said Arsenal hasn’t sent its young players on loan enough, though that hardly applies to Saka given he was 17 until September.

The injured Gunners used Konstantinos Mavropanos, Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, and Reiss Nelson in the Starting XI, and brought Gabriel Martinelli off the bench.

“I feel sorry for our young players,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t been on loan, they’ve not had that exposure to men’s football. Some of them made mistakes but they’ll learn from those mistakes and won’t do them again.”

Smith-Rowe was loaned to RB Leipzig last season and Nelson starred on loan at Hoffenheim. Mavropanos played first team football for Greek Super League side PAS Giannina in his late teens.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Arsenal uses thrilling comeback to win Europa League group

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Nothing Arsenal-related is allowed to be easy, it seems.

The Gunners used a goal and an assist from Bukayo Saka to come back from a two-goal deficit and draw Standard Liege 2-2 in Belgium on Thursday, winning its Europa League group when Vitoria came back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt on a wild afternoon of soccer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Arsenal trailed on second half goals from Samuel Bastien and Selim Amallah, but rallied behind Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to score a second-straight win for interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

Saka sent in a laser cross in the 78th minute and Lacazette did quite well to power it under the bar.

He’s loving this competition, having made a serious entrance earlier in the tournament versus Eintracht Frankfurt. The 18-year-old now has two goals and five assists across all competitions this season.

The Gunners needed just three more minutes to tie the score on a day they outshot the hosts 15-11.

Saka showed his nose for goal to tie the score five minutes later with a dribble to the top of the 18 and a sly finish to the keeper’s left.

This was all happening around the same time Vitoria scored twice in three minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Eintracht Frankfurt.

Standard Liege goes from the knockout rounds to nothing in a blink, while Eintracht goes from winning the group to second.

The field for the Europa League is looking fierce, with Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg joining the competition via transfer from the UEFA Champions League.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks

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Matchweek 17 is here in the Premier League as the games continue to come thick and fast during the festive season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Listen carefully, because this is very specific.

While you can download the NBC Sports Predictor app (below) and play the Premier League Pick ‘Em game yourself to predict the scores and win the prizes.

DOWNLOAD NBC SPORTS PREDICTOR

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the long shots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Liverpool 3-1 Watford – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM] 

Crystal Palace 3-1 Brighton – (Monday, 2:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM

Leicester 3-0 Norwich – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM]


DON’T TOUCH THIS…

Southampton 1-1 West Ham – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Sheffield United 2-1 Aston Villa – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM

Man United 2-1 Everton – (Sunday, 9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM


“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Arsenal 3-3 Man City – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Wolves 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday 9 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Newcastle United – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold) – [STREAM