Neymar’s first three Champions League goals see Barcelona to 6-1 win, top of Group H

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If the purchase of Neymar was supposed to alleviate Barcelona’s dependence on Lionel Messi, the 21-year-old phenom finally put that plan into effect on Wednesday. Scoring three times and setting up a fourth, Neymar found his way onto a UEFA Champions League scoresheet for the first time in six games, giving the Messi-less Blaugrana a 6-1 win over Celtic at the Nou Camp.

In the process, the three-time champions confirmed their place atop Group H, their 4-1-1 group stage record leaving them four points clear of second place Milan. That standing ensures they’ll draw against the competition’s group stage runners-up on Dec. 16, with Champions League’s Round of 16 set to resume on Feb. 18.

The layoff gives Barcelona fans time to savor a breakout performance from the club’s $78.6 million  purchase, a player who’d settled into the shadows during the first months of his European career. Entering the match, the former Santos star had five goals in 20 all competition matches, and while he’d also contributed nine assists in that time, the Brazilian’s goal scoring had been undermined by a transition period. After scoring 56 goals in his last year-and-half with Santos, Neymar was having to play second fiddle.

But with Messi still sidelined with a thigh problem, Neymar was center stage on Wednesday, a spotlight in which he thrived. After Gerard Piqué had opened the scoring in the seventh minute (putting home the rebound of an Alexis Sánchez shot), Neymar played a part in Barcelona’s next four goals.

In the 39th minute, Pedro Rodríguez doubled Barcelona’s lead after a Neymar step-over froze Celtic defender Efe Ambrose, with the Brazilian subsequently finding his teammate at the edge of the six-yard box. In the 44th, a scoop over the defense from Sanchez found right back Martín Montoya, with goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s save deflecting to Neymar for a finish into an empty goal.

Up 3-0 at halftime, Barcelona would double their lead in the second, the first salvo giving Neymar his second of the match. In the 48th minute. off a one-two with Xavi Hernández, Neymar was able to get a shot away from just inside the 18-yard box, his try beating Forster into the left of Celtic’s goal.  Ten minutes later, Neymar had his hat trick, nutmegging Ambrose before putting a close range shot off Adam Mathews. making it 5-0, Barcelona.

Neymar would tease a fourth with close calls in the 65th and 74th minute, but by the time he was taken off in the 81st, it was Cristian Tello who had finished Barça’s scoring. The returning attacker, having come on for Alexis Sánchez in the 63rd minute, scored from the middle of the area in the 72nd minute. An 88th minute set piece headed home by Georgios Samaras proved the only blemish in Barcelona’s 6-1 rout.

It was a refreshingly dominant performance for a Barcelona team that’d lost two of its last three games, their only victory coming against a lower division club in Spain’s Copa del Rey. But with a quick, ruthless efficiency the team’s missed since the start of the season, Gerardo Martino’s team gave their most convincing performance since Messi’s injury.

In the process, they showed why the team need not be so wary of their star’s absence. Whereas a spring injury to Messi derailed Barça’s 2012-13 Champions League campaign, this year they have insurance. If this is the Neymar was can expect going forward — one that’s shaken free of his transition phase to embrace his potential — Barcelona may ready to be more than Messi and friends.


Goals

Barcelona: Gerard Piqué 7, Pedro Rodríguez 39, Neymar 44, 48, Cristian Tello 72

Celtic: Georgios Samaras 88

Lineups

Barcelona: Pinto; Martín Montoya, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano, Adriano; Sergi Roberto, Sergio Busquets (Alex Song 73), Xavi Hernández; Alexis Sánchez (Cristian Tello 63), Neymar (Jean Marie Dongou 81), Pedro Rodríguez

Unused substitutes: Andrés Iniesta, Jodri Alba, Carles Puyol, Oier

Celtic: Fraser Forster; Mikael Lustig, Efe Ambrose, Virgil van Dijk, Adam Matthews (Anthony Stokes 82); Dirk Boerrigter, Nir Biton (Kris Commons 69), Sean Brown, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras; Teemu Pukki (Charlie Mulgrew 45)

Unused substitutes: Lukasz Zaluska, Bahrudin Atajic, Amido Baldé, Darnell Fisher

Gareth Bale hints at Premier League transfer

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Gareth Bale jumped off the bench with Real Madrid drawing 1-1 with Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final.

Moments later he scored one of the greatest goals in the history of European finals via an outrageous overhead kick, then added another late on to seal a 13th European title for Real.

Yet speaking to BT Sport after the game, Bale’s mind was quickly on why he didn’t start the game as Zinedine Zidane instead went with Isco and Karim Benzema in support of Cristiano Ronaldo up top.

“Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game, I felt I deserved it but the manager makes the decisions,” Bale said. “The best I have been doing is to come on and make an impact, I certainly did…

Asked about a potential move back to the Premier League, Bale had the following to say.

“I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season. I had an injury five, six weeks in but fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it and go from there,” Bale said.

That sound you can hear is the phone of Bale’s agent ringing…

Three things learned: Real Madrid v. Liverpool

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Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 in the UEFA Champions League final in Kiev on Saturday, with Zinedine Zidane’s side winning a third-straight European cup.

A game packed full of drama saw Mohamed Salah leave the pitch in tears early on after picking up a shoulder injury, while Real took the lead via Karim Benzema’s quick thinking after a horror moment for Loris Karius.

Liverpool reacted well to those blows as Sadio Mane equalized but then Gareth Bale jumped off the bench to score a stunning overhead kick goal, then Karius made another howler to allow Bale to score another and seal a record 13th European title for Real.

Below is a look at what we learned from an encapsulating game as the curtain came down on the European season in style.


BALE’S BRILLIANCE WORTHY OF WINNING ANY FINAL

This is the stuff of dreams for Gareth Bale.

The Welshman was left out of the starting lineup in Zidane’s only big decision of the game as Isco and Karim Benzema were favored to partner Cristiano Ronaldo in attack ahead of him.

Bale made Zidane question his call after jumping off the bench to change the game.

He not only scored that stunning goal but he also sent in a fabulous cross with the outside of his foot to pick out Benzema who nearly scored another late on. Then scored another from distance as his dipping shot caught out Karius who had a nightmare to spoon it into his net. Bale than raced clear late on but a fine tackle from Dejan Lovren denied him a hat trick with Ronaldo wide open.

Bale has scored in one previous Champions League final (2013/14) and last season he came off the bench late on after recovering from injury to play a bit-part. On Saturday he stole the show.

All of the talk will be about Bale this summer and if he will remain at the Santiago Bernabeu or head to the Premier League.

If he does end his five-year stay in Madrid this summer, Bale went out in style as he’s collected four Champions League winners medals and this will be the sweetest of the bunch.


SALAH’S INJURY; KARIUS HOWLERS HIT LIVERPOOL HARD

Mohamed Salah left the field in Kiev in tears in the first half and most of the soccer world was crying with him.

Salah (Liverpool’s leading goalscorer this season with 44 goals in all competitions) tangled with Sergio Ramos and Real Madrid’s captain locked his right arm in to the Egyptian forward who slammed into the pitch.

Take a look at the incident below as Salah’s World Cup dream with Egypt is in serious doubt.

Liverpool’s main man tried to carry on but as his adoring fans sung his chant which dominated the Premier League this season, the magician couldn’t carry on.

Salah’s absence made a huge difference and helped swing the game in Real Madrid’s favor with the Reds having just seven touches in Real’s half in the 14 first half minutes after Salah went off compared to 111 before that.

Obviously you cannot legislate for the kind of mistakes Karius made and Jurgen Klopp will have to answer questions about losing his sixth major final on the spin.

Karius may never get over the two huge mistakes he made but Liverpool did have chances as Mane hit the post as well as scoring, but losing Salah so early obviously had a huge impact on their chances.

Liverpool have had a stunning season in the Champions League and nobody thought they could get to the final. They’ve come up short but they can hold their head high and start to build for next season.


ZIDANE, REAL ARE TRUE LEGENDS

Zidane looked like he had just popped down the shop for a newspaper and a pint of milk at the final whistle.

The legendary player is now a legendary manager as he led his star-studded team to a third-straight European title and got the big calls correct. He started Benzema ahead of Bale and unleashed the angry Welshman to pummel Liverpool’s defense in the latter stages. It worked a treat and this Real team will go down in history.

Zidane watched on with a smile on his face in the closing stages as his team turned on the style and in truth they could’ve won by five or six. Even though they struggled in La Liga this season, Real turned it on when it mattered time and time again in the Champions League.

Let’s take a look at the records Real have now extended as they are truly the Kings of Europe

  • Real Madrid have won a record 13 European titles
  • Real made their 16th appearance in a European Cup final, more than any other team in history
  • They are the first team since Bayern Munich (1974-1976) to win three-straight European titles
  • Zinedine Zidane is just the third manager to win the European Cup/Champions League three times (after Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti), but the first to win it in three consecutive seasons

Player ratings, UCL final: Bale the hero, Karius the zero

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Real Madrid were crowned champions of Europe (again, for the third straight season) on Saturday, spearheaded by an all-time great goal scored by Gareth Bale and an all-time shocking performance from Loris Karius.

[ MORE: Benzema’s opener | Mane’s equalizer | Bale’s winner ]

Liverpool

GK – Loris Karius – 0/10: A goalkeeper has never committed a worse, more egregious, more senseless error in the history of soccer. Just watch it (unless you’re a Liverpool fan). Then he did this, in the same game. He can’t go back to Liverpool.

RB – Trent Alexander-Arnold – 6/10

CB – Dejan Lovren – 6.5/10

CB – Virgil Van Dijk – 6.5/10

LB – Andrew Robertson – 6.5/10: Robertson’s heroic sliding block to snuff out Cristiano Ronaldo’s breakaway in the 75th minute kept Liverpool’s hopes and dreams alive.

CM – Jordan Henderson – 7/10

CM – James Milner (83′) – 6/10

CM – Georginio Wijnaldum – 6/10

RW – Mohamed Salah (31′) – 5/10: Injured by a highly questionable “challenge” from Sergio Ramos (WATCH HERE) inside the opening half-hour, the Premier League’s Golden Boot winner was unable to find his footing (through little fault of his own) during a cagey opening 25 minutes.

CF – Roberto Firmino – 5.5/10: A brilliant season for the Brazilian ends with one of his least impactful, quietest outings of the campaign. To Madrid’s credit, they put him on an island up top and denied any and all service to the frontman.

LW – Sadio Mane – 7/10: Scored Liverpool’s only goal (WATCH HERE), but was rendered largely ineffective following Salah’s departure, as Madrid were able to shift their defensive focus to the other side of the field.

Sub – Adam Lallana (31′) – 5.5/10

Sub – Emre Can (83′) – N/A

[ MORE: Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool — Los Blancos make it three straight ]

Real Madrid

GK – Keylor Navas – 7.5/10: Navas made a pair of truly world-class saves in the first half to keep the game scoreless, at a time when the Reds were beginning to find their way and build up a head of steam.

RB – Dani Carvajal (37′) – 5/10

CB – Raphael Varane – 8/10: Kept Firmino in his hip pocket all game long.

CB – Sergio Ramos – 6/10: Responsible for the injury to Salah (no matter your feelings his about intent), but Ramos managed to avoid getting sent off over 90 minutes, which is a big win for him.

LB – Marcelo – 6.5/10:

CDM – Casemiro – 6.5/10

CM – Luka Modric – 7/10: Bossed the midfield and marshaled (par for the course) with four tackles and completed 94 percent of his 72 passes attempted. Madrid’s metronome, oftentimes their most important players lying in the shadows.

CM – Toni Kroos – 6/10

CAM – Isco – 7.5/10 (61′): Far and away Madrid’s best player for the entirety of the first half, and was inches from putting Los Blancos ahead in the 48th minute, when he lifted the ball over Karius and was denied by the crossbar.

FW – Karim Benzema (89′) – 7/10: Scored the game’s opening goal, could have scored a second goal late in the second half if not for a great save by Karius, and continues to (somehow) remain underrated when he so consistently shows up in the big games.

FW – Cristiano Ronaldo – 6/10: Little to no impact from minute 1 to 90. All that was missing was an 89th-minute goal to make it 5-1 and a wild shirt-off celebration like he’d scored the winner.

Sub – Nacho (37′) – 6/10

Sub – Gareth Bale (61′) – 10/10: When you score a goal like this, you got a 10/10 every time, no matter anything else you did while on the field (he scored again in the 83rd minute).

Sub – Marco Asensio (89′) – N/A

Bale brace guides Real Madrid to another UCL title

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Los Blancos have been the gold standard in the UEFA Champions League over the last half decade, and Zinedine Zidane and his side are victorious once more.

Real Madrid came away with a 3-1 win over Liverpool in Saturday’s UCL final in Kiev, Ukraine, courtesy of a goal from Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale‘s brace.

Although the first half left a bitter taste due to two key injuries to Mohamed Salah and Dani Carvajal, the second stanza really opened up in a brilliant manner.

Bale was on the pitch less than three minutes when he got his opener, and managed to complete a brace to help guide Real to its fourth UCL crown in five seasons.

The Welshman’s sublime bicycle kick restored Madrid’s lead in the second half, before Bale gave Real a two-goal advantage in the dying minutes with a venomous strike that left Karius stunned again.

Meanwhile, the Reds had responded well to Real’s first gut punch, when Sadio Mane equalized in the 55th minute when a close-range finish off a corner kick.

Goalkeeper Loris Karius granted Real a gift opener four minutes prior, after Karim Benzema blocked his throw from inside his box, and knocked it into the Liverpool net.

Karius had several Reds players open to distribute the ball to, but Benzema’s clever play provided the first goal in a comedic fashion.

The second half presented Real with the best chance of the match, as Isco smacked a shot off the crossbar, but the Madridistas couldn’t put the rebound away.

Cristiano Ronaldo nearly snuck one in for Real on the struck of halftime with a powerful header, but Karius did brilliantly to deny the Portuguese attacker from close range. Karim Benzema’s follow-up attempt was slammed home, however, he was ruled offside.

Liverpool was dealt a massive blow just prior to the half-hour mark, when leading goalscorer Salah was substituted out due to an apparent left shoulder injury.

The Egypt international went down in significant pain before being taken out after a 50-50 challenge with Sergio Ramos.

Several reports have already suggested Salah will miss the World Cup in Russia.

Los Blancos were forced into an early change as well, after Carvajal went down with an injury 10 minutes before halftime. Nacho was introduced into the match.

In the 21st minute, Trent Alexander-Arnold nearly blasted home the opener, but Keylor Navas held strong to prevent the Liverpool right back from scoring.

The Reds came out the dominant side, leaving Madrid with little room to work with in the midfield due to the high press employed by Jurgen Klopp.

Liverpool was the only previous English side to defeat a Spanish opponent in the UCL final, having beaten Real in the 1980/81 season behind a 1-0 victory in Paris.