Copa del Rey: Draw in San Sebastián sees Barcelona set up Clasico final

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Their victory may not have had the deafening impact Real Madrid’s thumping of Atlético sounded in the tournament’s other semifinal, but with their 3-1 aggregate win over Real Sociedad, Barcelona has achieved the same result. Building on last week’s 2-0 win a the Nou Camp, the reigning Spanish champions got an early goal from Lionel Messi today in San Sebastián, eliminating what little chance La Real had of overturning their first legdeficit. The eventual 1-1 result sets up a third Clasico of the season in April’s Copa del Rey final.

Messi opened the scoring the in the 27th minute with an effort evocative if his pre-injury self. Picking up a ball just inside his own half, Messi carried scrambled all the way to the edge of the Real Sociedad area, navigating a triangle of defenders to get his shot off from 18 yards. While Eñaut Zubikarai was able to get a hand on it, Messi’s slavo had enough behind to still trickle across the goal line, giving the visitors a three-goal lead.

Holding 76 percent of the ball, Barcelona was able to limit their hosts’ chances through possession along, though three minutes before full-time, Sociedad were able to craft a consolation goal. While a diagonal was played to substitute Gonzalo Castro down the left flank. Antoine Griesmann made a run to the top of the area, where Chilean found him 15 yards from goal. One-timing a left-footed blast past Pinto, the France World Cup hopeful ensured his team would avoid one of the indignities bestowed on Atlético. It took nearly 180 minutes, but at least his team managed a goal.

Superficially, the goal gives the impression Barcelona did less against La Real than Real Madrid accomplished against Atlético. In reality, neither tie was ever that close, with only the first 45 minutes of the two-legged affairs providing any hope a final Clasico could be avoided. While Real Madrid certainly deserve extra credit for easing past a team that had been almost unbeatable all year, there’s little more Barcelona could have done against Sociedad besides run up a meaningless score.

That they instead exerted their trademark oppressive, ball-hogging control reignites the debates that have defined the last few years of Spanish soccer. Can the power and prowess that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale embody subdue the technical dominance Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta bring to the game? Can the might of Sergio Ramos and Pepe hold up against Barcelona’s movement, and will Gerard Piqué and company be able to handle the counterattacks Real’s sure to throw at them?

The next arguments will be made on Mar. 22 at the Bernabéu, with the teams meeting in La Liga. Thanks to today’s result, we’ll now get a third Clasico of the season in April. With Spain’s big two rounding into form, Champions League could very well provide more.

Manuel Pellegrini takes the reins at West Ham United

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West Ham United was said to be chasing Rafa Benitez, and instead got a manager with more recent big time success.

Manuel Pellegrini is the new boss at West Ham, returning to the league which saw him guide Manchester City to a Premier League title and two League Cups.

[ MORE: Man Utd after pair of mids ]

The 64-year-old Chilean is well-traveled, and most recently managed Hebei China Fortune. He was released from his contract with the Chinese Super League side last week.

Pellegrini has also led Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Malaga since arriving from South America in 2004.

From WHUFC.com:

“I think that West Ham had a difficult season last season and I hope that next season we are going to play football that will delight the fans. I always play attacking football and we must try to reach important targets in the season.

“Every time you have a meeting you have feelings about whether it was a good meeting or a bad meeting and I had the meeting with him, just talking about football and talking about West Ham.  We agreed on a lot of things he wants for this Club in the way I think a football club must be managed, so we have a lot of common ideas.”

Pellegrini is missing more than a few elements to play the way he’d like to play, and his arrival could spell the end for long-time players like Mark Noble. It could also be a boon for Pablo Zabaleta as the former Man City pair is reunited in London.

West Ham has spent freely in recent years, and Pellegrini’s status could help it land a breed of player unavailable to Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, and David Moyes.

Transfer rumors: Man Utd after pair of midfielders; Liverpool eyes Lascelles

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The transfer rumors continue as players hope to have their futures sorted ahead of next month’s World Cup.

Manchester United is being linked with a pair of big money midfielders.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Anderson Talisca, 24, could be leaving Besiktas to join United following a $47 million offer, according to Metro. His 14 goals were fourth in the Turkish Super Lig and his seven assists tied for the team lead. He scored four more times in eight UEFA Champions League matches.

And then there’s highly-sought box-to-box midfielder Jean Michael Seri of Nice, linked with United as well as Manchester City. Club president Jean-Pierre Rivere hinted that the 26-year-old would certainly be headed somewhere this offseason.

Mika Seri is … a very good player who has brought a lot to the club and can legitimately have that desire to go and play abroad.”

— Liverpool could really strengthen its center back situation by buying captain Jamaal Lascelles from Newcastle United, though the hinted fee of $19 million seems low for an integral part of the Magpies’ back line (especially given that English players usually net higher fees on account of being English).

And Lascelles has said Newcastle “is the right club for me at the right time. We have a huge fanbase, an amazing manager, and this club is massive. It has so much history.”

The Chronicle also said Liverpool is also looking at Burnley star center back James Tarkowski, and that Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez has his eye on 19-year-old Sevilla mid Alejandro Viedma.

— A wild rumor out of Diario Gol says Alvaro Morata is set to fight for his starting role at Chelsea and is encouraging Real Madrid buddy Marco Asensio to join him at Stamford Bridge. The report says Asensio would be an important part of any Chelsea sale of Eden Hazard.

— Cardiff City is said to be signing Hamburg striker Sven Schipplock when his Hamburg contract expires in June. He did not score for HSV last season.

Brighton adds Nigerian World Cup defender from Mainz

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Brighton and Hove Albion has added some depth to their center back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Leon Balogun has arrived from Mainz, the 28-year-old Nigerian heading to the World Cup and then hitting the Amex Stadium on a free transfer.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Mainz avoided relegation by three points this season, and Balogun played in 14 matches. He had been with the Bundesliga outfit since 2015, and has 16 caps.

Balogun has also spent time at left and right back.

Ezequiel Schelotto just finished his first season as a Brighton right back, playing 28 times, but also moved up the right side. Bruno played plenty there as well, but is 37 years old.

Gaetan Bong and Markus Suttner split time at left back. All four of the players will be with the Gulls next season.

Brighton already had a top-half defense in terms of goals allowed. This should only help that.

Xabi Alonso: Liverpool-Real to be “such a special game”

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Xabi Alonso is part of a unique brand of footballer to have played with both Liverpool and Real Madrid.

The retired 36-year-old spent five seasons with each team, winning a UEFA Champions League with both, and now will watch his alma maters tangle for a UCL crown on Saturday.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Alonso said he’s just rooting for “an unbelievable game to watch,” and seems like he’ll be happy either way.

“I have feelings for both clubs. I was lucky enough to win this trophy with both clubs so for me it’s difficult to pick one and I will be happy whatever happens, that’s for sure. For Liverpool, for Madrid [they are in] different circumstances, but it’s such a special game.”

The Spanish legend also seemed a bit torn as to whether Real’s experience or Liverpool’s newbie excitement could tilt the scales:

“For the Real Madrid guys, it’s the opposite. They have played so many finals in the last few years, so they can manage the situation better. Later it’s just 90 minutes for both sides, whatever happens. But the build-up is different.

“For sure it’s good to have that experience. But it’s good as well to have that excitement, that hunger, but you need to control as well the over-relaxation and the over-motivation.

“You need to find the right point of activation for the game. That’s not difficult because you know what it means to play in a Champions League final and you don’t have many chances during your whole career, and that’s one of the key psychological sides of this game. And the emotional side is almost as good as the football side.”

Maybe it’s simply playing both sides of the fence, and there’s no shame in that, but it does seem a hard match to choose. Both have been wildly inconsistent in league play as well as the group stage, but have been quite good in the knockout rounds.

It’s hard to pick against Real, but that’s why they play the games.