Lionel Messi could return for Barcelona by Jan. 5, one week ahead of showdown at Atlético Madrid

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With a showdown match against Atlético Madrid looming on Jan. 11, Barcelona need to get Lionel Messi back as soon as possible. Luckily for the defending La Liga champions, the Argentine’s hamstring appears to be cooperating, with the team considering moving up his expected return date in response to the injury’s improvements.

According to reports out of Spain, Barça was originally targeting their trip to second place Atlético for Messi’s return. Now, given the progress the 26-year-old has shown, the Spanish leaders are considering moving Messi’s return from Argentina up to Jan. 5, theoretically giving Messi games against Elche (in league) and Granada (in Copa del Rey) to prepare for Jan. 11’s big match.

The news comes after Barcelona physical trainer Elvio Paolorosso visited Messi in Rosario, Argentina last week. A final determination on Messi’s return won’t be made until the star arrives in Catalonia on Jan. 2, but Paolorosso’s visit gave the club’s staff reason to think the reigning Ballon d’ Or honoree will be able to log some time ahead of the team’s visit to the Vicente Calderón.

Messi had scored eight times in 11 league appearances before being sidelined after Nov. 10th’s match at Real Betis, a 4-1 victory for Barcelona. The team ruled their then-leading scorer out until the new year, allowing Messi to return to Argentina earlier this month to continue his recovery.

Without him, Barcelona has gone 6-2-0 in all competitions, though the team has also been troubled by longterm absences to goalkeeper Víctor Valdés, right back Dani Alves, and left back Jordi Alba, who has since returned. Central defender Carles Puyol has had trouble staying healthy, while midfielder Xavi Hernández has also been slowed by fitness issues.

All the while, Atlético Madrid won’t go away. Dating back to their 1-0 loss at Espanyol on Oct. 19, Diego Simeone’s team has gone 12-0-2, their 46 points matching Barcelona’s total through 17 rounds. In Messi’s absence, Atleti striker Diego Costa is leading the league’s scoring race, having scored 19 times. With Atlético playing Barcelona to two draws in the preseason Supercopa, Gerardo Martino’s squad will be under no false assumptions about the strength of Madrid’s ‘other’ club.

Getting Messi back for their visit to the Calderón was always going to be crucial for Barcelona, but thanks to a quicker-than-expected recovery, Messi may get a chance to find his legs beforethe biggest game in La Liga’s  title race.

Opportunistic Brighton nips sleepy Newcastle

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  • Moribund Magpies hit bottom
  • Brighton scores with only shot on target
  • Newcastle out attempts Seagulls 27-7

Newcastle United controlled the game but failed to manufacture much danger, as the woeful Magpies lost again, this time 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at St. James’ Park on Saturday.

Beram Kayal scored for Brighton, who moves 12th with 11 points. Newcastle has two points, and sits dead last.

Glenn Murray was injured early after a scary head-to-head clash with Federico Fernandez and was stretchered off the pitch.

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Shelvey darted in to take the ball from Gaetan Bong, and Ayoze Perez’s low effort could’ve been a bit better but still forced a fine save out of Mathew Ryan.

Ryan was hurt trying to get around Perez for a loose ball moments later, favoring his shoulder.

There was a much scarier incident moments later, which caused a 10-minute delay in the match. Glenn Murray won an aerial challenge with Federico Fernandez, but they clashed heads and both hit the turf.

Murray appeared to be knocked cold, and players rushed to steady his neck and clear his pathway as trainers rushed to treat him. He was stretchered off the pitch.

Brighton went ahead in the 29th minute off a corner kick which should not have been given, as Jose Izquierdo’s long shot through traffic took a turn off Kayal and into the goal.

Newcastle reclaimed the driver’s seat, and Matt Ritchie headed wide in the 39th minute.

Shane Duffy then blocked a dangerous low drive from Jonjo Shelvey, and moments later Yoshinori Muto nodded a bouncing, rising Shelvey rebound over the bar.

Kenedy then came close with a laser from 25 yards, skimming the top of the bar.

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Ryan made a fine save on Shelvey just after halftime as Newcastle went right back on the front foot.

He’d later push a deflected Shelvey free kick over the bar before saving from Kenedy off the ensuing corner.

But Newcastle had no ideas and not enough desperation, handing a result to the Seagulls.

Cardiff City thrashes sorry Fulham to move out of drop zone

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  • Cardiff out of the drop zone
  • Paterson nabs winner
  • Fulham slide into 18th

Four different players scored as Cardiff City finally collected a win, moving out of the drop zone at the expense of woeful Fulham after a 4-2 win at Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday.

Bobby Reid, Josh Murphy, Callum Paterson, and Kadeem Harris scored for the Bluebirds, who move 17th with five points.

Ryan Sessegnon and Andre Schurrle scored for Fulham, who dip into the drop zone on five points and an almost absurd 25 goals allowed through nine matches.

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If you had this one as the “four goals in about 20 minutes” match of the 10 a.m. ET kickoffs, well you’ve got a sick imagination (even with Fulham’s propensity for allowing goals).

But that’s how it went down in Wales, with Andre Schurrle’s remarkable 30 yards laser opening the scoring in the 11th minute.

Cardiff claimed the leader with goals in the 15th and 20th minutes. Josh Murphy equalized with a fine solo goal, and American defender Tim Ream‘s poor touch for Fulham then allowed Bobby Reid in on goal for 2-1.

Sessegnon then became the first player born in the 2000s to score a Premier League goal when he took a flick from Aleksandar Mitrovic and beat Neil Etheridge. 2-2.

But wait: Fulham had more poor defending on offer. A Bruno Ecuele Manga missed every clearing attempt in the fray, and Paterson made it 3-2 with 25 minutes to play.

Etheridge made a strong stop on Alfie Mawson in the 84th minute. And Real Betis loanee Victor Camarasa spotted Harris at the back post for 4-2 with minutes to play.

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South Coast stalemate: Bournemouth, Southampton draw

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  • King misses big chance
  • No goal in four games for Saints
  • Bournemouth unbeaten in three

Bournemouth and Southampton drew 0-0 at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday, with the South Coast derby a tight, tense affair.

Charlie Austin spurned a good chance in the first half, while Bournemouth did plenty of probing but failed to break through.

With the point Bournemouth now have 17 for the season, while Saints have six.

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Bournemouth showed some promising moments early on but both Adam Smith and David Brooks got their efforts wrong.

At the other end Charlie Austin was the danger man for Saints, but his heavy touch took the ball out of his reach despite beating Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic to it.

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The first half ended with no goals in a tight encounter in a South Coast derby.

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In the second half King missed a glorious chance after being picked out by Wilson as the Norwegian striker scuffed his shot.

At the other end Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg‘s dipping volley was tipped over by Begovic in a rare chance for Saints.

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In the end, both teams settled for a point in the sun and Saints will be the happier team.

Watch Live: Huddersfield Town vs. Liverpool

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Mohamed Salah and Virgil Van Dijk have passed fitness tests and will start for Huddersfield Town at Liverpool on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

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Roberto Firmino is on the bench, while both Naby Keita and Sadio Mane miss out. Adam Lallana gets a rare start for the Reds.

LINEUPS

Huddersfield Town: Lossl, Hogg, Schindler, Hadergjonaj, Durm, Lowe, Zanka, Billing, Mooy, Pritchard, Depoitre. Subs: Hamer, Bacuna, Diakhaby, Van La Parra, Mbenza, Mounie, Stankovic.

Liverpool: Alisson, Gomez, Lovren, Van Dijk, Robertson, Milner, Henderson, Lallana, Shaqiri, Salah, Sturridge. Subs: Mignolet, Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Firmino, Origi, Matip, Alexander-Arnold.