AC Milan, FC Barcelona play to 1-1 Champions League draw at the San Siro

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When Champions League group stage is said and done in December, both Barcelona and AC Milan seem likely to find their way into the tournament’s elimination rounds.

But that doesn’t make the latest meeting of these European giants any less interesting. (And these sides do seem to be in UEFA opposition quite often, don’t they? This was their seventh meeting in recent seasons.)

Both teams remain unbeaten in Group H after their 1-1 draw Tuesday at the San Siro.

Leo Messi was back on the field after his recent injury struggles, but talented Milan troublemaker Mario Balotelli was on the bench to start this at the fabled San Siro. Never mind that for the Italians, who spent the early minutes Tuesday looking like a better version of the club that has struggled to impress this year in Serie A.

They looked dangerous early, and what a big mess Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano made in dealing with one rather benign, bouncing ball into their half, both players failing to communicate or take charge. (Carles Puyol, just cleared to play, can’t get back quickly enough for the Blaugrana.)

From there, Barcelona’s scrambling center backs were in big trouble as Kaka and Robinho went quickly to work, keeping ahead of the desperately pursuing pair of Barca defenders and tucking away a deserved 1-0 lead after just seven minutes. Robinho had the goal.

Milan blew it similarly in the 24th minute as Cristian Zapata fumbled away possession in midfield. Andres Iniesta pounced as ferociously and effectively as we should expect from the exceptional Spanish world champion, quickly finding the peerless Messi along the right. Once Milan’s Zapata had lost the ball, so quick was Barca’s movement forward and the telling pass into Messi, the world’s best player was left unmarked, utterly alone to sweep in on goal.

Messi seemed almost to lose the opportunity as he moved quickly in on goal, but then gained his balance just enough to record his personal Champions League goal No. 63, one closer in his pursuit of Raul’s all-time tournament record.

Still, Messi was far from his best; the Argentinian striker is had played just 20 minutes (just last weekend) since sustaining a September thigh injury sustained against Almeria. So those signature Messi bursts arrived only on occasion, unfortunate for the visitors, who would surely have liked to have tested young Milan backup goalkeeper Marco Amelia.

The second half was lots of Barca possession with just a scattering of chances on either side. Messi’s pass into the galloping Adriano gave Barca the best of three good chances after the break.

Milan’s best chance after the break: Robinho’s curious decision to let a ball roll through the penalty area (Or did he badly misplay a centering pass?) robbed the home side of a potential go-ahead goal in the 51st minute.

(At least we noticed Robinho. The other famous Brazilian in this one, Barca’s recently arrived Neymar, still hunting his debut Champions League goal, was seldom heard from Tuesday at the San Siro.)

Otherwise, Milan’s attack went meek. Mario Balotelli’s 65th minute introduction did add just a smidge of punch, but only briefly. In fact, all of Barca’s possession quieted the crowd and left the San Siro in an odd hush for most of the second half.

Tuesday’s lineups:

AC MILAN: Marco Amelia; Ignazio Abate, Cristián Zapata, Philippe Mexès, Kévin Constant; Nigel de Jong, Sulley Muntari, Riccardo Montolivo; Valter Birsa, Robinho, Kaká

Substitutes: Ferdinando Coppola, Matías Silvestre, Andrea Poli, Antonio Nocerino, Urby Emanuelson, Alessandro Matri, Mario Balotelli

FC BARCELONA: Victor Valdés; Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta; Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi, Neymar.

Substitutes: Jose Manuel Pinto, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Cristian Tello

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

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Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

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Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

whufc.com
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West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

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In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.