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

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.