FC Barcelona seizes control of Champions League series with 2-0 win over Manchester City

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Manchester City’s hopes of a seminal four-trophy season took a big blow Tuesday, as a bid for the biggest title among them, the UEFA Champions League crown, now looks like one tough, uphill slog.

Leo Messi scored from the penalty spot early in the second half, having created the opportunity himself and put the home team a man down for 35 minutes in a match-turning (most likely even a series turning moment) moment that was quintessential Messi, an arresting dribbling burst.

Dani Alves’ 90th minute goal from a tough angle was certainly significant, too, putting this battle of giants further out of reach for the English club.

Barca’s 2-0 win Tuesday at the Etihad Stadium leaves the La Liga giants well in control of the teams’ Round-of-16 two-leg series.

In fact, this was the match of a Round-of-16 bunch, one that does come stocking stuffed with some other dandies.  Barcelona controlled possession in a match with a “finals” feel, although the Citizens’ tactics were proving prescient for 50 or so minutes, as Manuel Pellegrini’s men made excellent use of the time on the ball they could wrestle from Tuesday’s visitors.

For Gerardo Martino’s Barcelona, criticized recently as the worst side from the Nou Camp in years, this win meant more than seizing control ahead of the return leg back in Spain. Barcelona had just one win in six Champions League matches on the road. Further, Martino’s club was winless in five away matches against English clubs.

Pellegrini raised eyebrows with the choice to deploy Aleksander Kolarov, usually a defender, in the midfield in front of Gael Clichy. Samir Nasri would surely have been the most attack-minded choice, although there are concerns that the French international is not fully fit. Also, the team was in more of a 4-4-1-1 rather than the more standard 4-4-2.

(MORE: What we learned in Barca’s win Tuesday at Manchester City)

Most will excuse Pellegrini if those selections looked slightly on the conservative side – because his tactics did prove correct. While Barca generally held a big edge in possession, real scoring chances were quite few and City goalkeeper Joe Hart was mostly a spectator before the break.

Meanwhile, City refused to be stretched, perhaps occasionally frustrated by the inability to get the ball (or even get close to it, sometimes) but breaking with real authority when gaining control. David Silva found Alvaro Negredo with an early ball right down the middle for City’s first chance, following 18 minutes of almost all Barca possession.

When the home side wasn’t going direct, they aimed crosses for Negredo, generally looking to exploit one of their big edges in this compelling series: in size.

That’s not to say things were all that rotten for Barca, whose ability to keep the ball was a confidence builder and a tactically sound bit of its own, even if it did all look a bit punchless at times.

Messi’s moment broke open the stalemate in the 53rd minute as Barcelona won a ball along its let side. More accurately, City winger Jesus Nevas lost the ball and may have been fouled, although it looked more likely he was attempting to cover for a poor dribbling choice by throwing himself to the ground.

Either way, Andres Iniesta spotted Messi, who had quickly worked himself into the gap between City’s center backs. Iniesta zipped a ball into Messi’s path and the trailing (and slightly out of position) Martin Demichelis, probably the weak link along the Citizens back line, was in big trouble.

When Demichelis lunged in a desperate bid to stop Messi just outside the penalty area, he instead fouled the wily Argentine. The initial contact appeared to take place just inches outside the penalty area, but the result wasn’t just a spot shot – his sending off as the last man on a scoring opportunity left City a man down for more than half an hour.

(MORE: Cesc Fabregas tells world Barca isn’t finished)

Messi’s left-footer from the 12-yard spot went right down the middle, as Hart dove to his left. It was his 66th Champions League goal.

City did offer a reasonable account with just 10 men, creating some bother here and there; Silva’s stinger at the end of a swell City sequence was the best chance, forcing a fine 76th minute save from Victor Valdes. Still, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and the other Barca attackers did more to keep Hart busy at the other end.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany (c), Demichelis, Clichy; Toure, Fernandinho, Navas, Silva, Kolarov; Negredo

Barcelona: Víctor Valdés; Dani Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Alexis Sánchez, Messi, Fabregas

Burning Question: Who is the best player in North America right now?

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It’s a question many have tried to answer recently, and now it’s ProSoccerTalk’s chance to give a verdict of their own: Who is the best player in North America right now.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Knowing the loyalty of the devout Liga MX fan, the following statement may make a few onlookers cringe, or become enraged: Carlos Vela is currently the best player in North America. Period.

Truthfully, it shouldn’t take more than 15 seconds to generate such an answer. The question should instead be: What player comes at a touching distance from 31-year-old Vela?

Carlos Vela has been on a legendary streak since arriving in Los Angeles from San Sebastian, scoring for fun. Literally, scoring for fun – when he wants, how he wants: long or short range chips, stunning volleys, headers, from the spot, 30-yard runs leading to gentle tap-ins, free kicks, you name it. In numbers, it reads more like a humble 57 goals in 71 appearances.

That’s a healthy goal-per-game-ratio.

And to be clear, goalscorers aren’t the only type of players that qualify for the sweepstakes – supreme talent doesn’t discriminate. But in this case it just happens to be that an inverted winger, with a penchant for goal, happens to outdo not only every player in MLS, but in every other North American top-flight contest, including Liga MX.

And perhaps scoring goals isn’t his ultimate quality – Vela’s dynamism, agility and tenacity are at the core of his magic. There’s a reason why he’s considered the most talented Mexican player of his generation.

Still tough to accept? Ask yourself this: Who was the last player in North America that Josep Maria Bartomeu and Barcelona went after?

You guessed right – Vela. The Spanish giants know a thing or two about scouting elite talent, don’t they?

Transfer news: Kane to Real Madrid, Alexis Sanchez to West Ham

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The latest transfer news continues across the Premier League and here’s a look at some of the juiciest rumors.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

According to Sport, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has his sights set on signing Tottenham striker Harry Kane this summer.

With Luka Jovic failing to impress at the Santiago Bernabeu, Los Blancos are set to make some moves to consolidate the presence up top. Kane, 26, and Wolves striker Raul Jimenez are some of the few names to have been mentioned thus far.

Kane, who has a running contract with Spurs until 2024, recently mentioned that he wouldn’t rule out a move out of north London, if Tottenham were unable to capitalize on winning silverware.

“I’m an ambitious player, I want to improve, I want to get better, I want to become one of the top, top players,” Kane said earlier this month. “It all depends on what happens as a team and how we progress as a team. So it’s not a definite I’m going to stay there forever – but it’s not a no either.”

As far as transfers go, nothing gets bigger and more “ambitious” than a summer blockbuster move to Real Madrid. Kane has a promising project spearheaded by Jose Mourinho himself at his boyhood club, but the opportunity to represent Real Madrid – at such a prime age, with an astronomical amount of hype – may only come around once.


Alexis Sanchez’s time at Inter Milan is coming to a close, and his next destination may be a Premier League team not named Manchester United, according to FC Inter News.

The 31-year-old Chilean’s agent, Fernando Felicevich, has reportedly been inquired by West Ham, who are considering placing a bid to lure the winger out of Old Trafford.

Sanchez arrived at Inter last summer on loan but has failed to impress when healthy, recording a mere goal and three assist in 15 appearances this season. With the possibilities of Sanchez remaining at Manchester United past the summer getting slimmer by the day, the Hammers are hoping to land the South American at a reduced price.

Sanchez, one of United’s highest earners, is reportedly also gathering interest from other unnamed Premier League and Bundesliga sides.

Belarusian Premier League roundup: FC Energetik-BGU edge FC Minsk, moves to top of league

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The Belarusian Premier League – the only active European top-flight league at the moment – continued on Sunday despite the coronavirus pandemic.

FC Energetik-BGU 2-0 FC Minsk 

FC Energetik-BGU are the new leaders of the Belarusian Premier League, following a 2-0 victory over FC Minsk, who were atop of the table prior to Sunday’s bout.

Aleksey Nosko broke the deadlock in the 21st minute, while winger Jasurbek Yakhshiboev sealed the victory for the hosts in stoppage time.

With the victory, Energetik-BGU are the only unbeaten team in the league after three matchweeks, winning all three matches. The positive spell began with a 3-1 against Belarus giants BATE Boristov. Since, Energetik-BGU have scored three goals, while managing to concede none.

Slutsk, who also featured on Sunday, moved up to second on the table following a hard-earned 3-2 victory over Isloch, which saw them play the final minutes of the match with 10 players.

Elsewhere in Belarusian Premier League 

Smolevichi-STI 0-0 Vitebsk

Isloch 2-3 Slutsk

Spanish players criticize league’s call for furloughs

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MADRID (AP) Soccer players in Spain on Sunday criticized the Spanish league’s decision to ask clubs to put the footballers on government furloughs during the coronavirus crisis.

The league on Friday said the furloughs were needed because there was no agreement on the size of the salary cuts players must take to reduce the financial impact of the pandemic.

“It is strange that the Liga supports (the furloughs),” Spain’s players’ association said in a statement.

It said the league should have created a financial cushion for this period considering it always boasted about its “economic control measures” and the “well-balanced economy” of the Spanish clubs. The association said it also should be taken into account that the league has been temporarily suspended and not yet canceled.

The league and the players’ association have been in talks to try to find ways to mitigate losses that could reach nearly 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) if the season cannot be restarted because of the pandemic.

The players said they agree with a salary reduction to help the clubs during the crisis, but not to the extent the league wants, which could amount to nearly half of the total losses if the competition is not resumed.

Players said they want to keep negotiating directly with the clubs instead of being forced into furloughs.

“The clubs and the players have been reaching agreements regarding the salaries,” the players’ association said. “What footballers are not going to do is relinquish labor rights.”

Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are among the Spanish clubs requesting furloughs, but both directly negotiated the amount of the salary reduction with players — 70% in both cases. Both clubs and their players are contributing to guarantee the wages of non-playing employees being furloughed.

The government furloughs help reduce the clubs’ labor costs while also guaranteeing players their jobs once the crisis is over.

Spain has more than 130,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with nearly 12,500 deaths. The nation is expected to remain in a lockdown until April 26.

There is no timetable for the return of the Spanish league.

Players maintained their position to only resume competing when health authorities deem it safe for everyone’s heath, a view also shared by the Spanish league.

The league has suggested it will recommend teams start mini-camp while the lockdown is still in place, if it’s possible to do so within the restrictions imposed by authorities.

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