UCL Preview: Barcelona hope to tip the scales against Atlético Madrid

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Before the first leg of its UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Atlético Madrid, there was a sense Barcelona’s recent draws against last year’s Copa del Rey winners provided a partial picture of the teams’ matchup. After 90 minutes in Catalonia and the teams’ fourth draw of the season, a more dire picture’s presented itself. If Barcelona doesn’t break through Wednesday at the Vicente Calderón — if it does not become the first team to claim victory in the clubs’ season series — the Blaugrana could meet their earliest Champions League exit in seven years.

The 1-1 result at the Nou Camp leaves the teams even at halftime, but the away goals edge sits with Atleti. And in two of the teams’ four meetings this season, the game has ended 0-0. While a score draw will mean at least penalty kicks for Gerardo Martino’s men, a third scoreless game will put Atlético into an unlikely semifinal. The Colchoneros need to neither win nor score to move past the three-time champions.

(MORE, Champions League: Diego, Neymar goals leave Atlético, Barcelona even after leg one)

“The result [of the first leg] doesn’t mean anything,” Atlético head coach Diego Simeone cautioned on Tuesday. “Barcelona always play offensively and this is a perfect match for them with [potentially] 120 minutes to play …We are going to come up against the best Barcelona players of recent times. These games are special for them and they are used to playing them.”

Given the injuries Barcelona carries into this match, the reigning Spanish champions may need multiple goals to know off Atlético. Víctor Valdés, the Spanish international who has kept goal for three of the teams’ meetings, is out with a knee injury. He’s joined on the sidelines by the squad’s best defender, Gerard Piqué, who suffered a hip injury in leg one. Club icon Carles Puyol has travelled with the team, but having been out for the last 37 days, his return may prove a desperate one. Though Diego Costa and Arda Turan both carry injuries into Wednesday’s match, a central defense of Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano looks like a weakness.

(MORE: Brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid has begun to transcend results)

The extent to which those two exposed will depend on the Barcelona midfield – a trio that’s been the foundation of the club’s recent success. As Andrés Iniesta reminded us in leg one, big games often bring out the Spanish international’s best performances – form that makes him one of the top midfielders in the world. Veteran Xavi Hernández comes into the game fully healthy, while defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets is capable of masking a number of blemishes in defense. Bartra and Mascherano may be a worry, but if the midfield performs as expected, Atlético’s chances to exploit them will be limited.

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Barcelona has two goals against Atlético Madrid this season, both scored by Neymar. (Photo credit: Getty Images.)

This will be a passionate game,” Simeone predicts, “one of the biggest in the UEFA Champions League – between two teams with different styles.”

Atlético’s style — one that’s comfortable player without the ball — means Barcelona will have time to find its biggest weapon, though if recent results are any indication, Lionel Messi may prove less dangerous against Simeone’s team than he would another opponent. In his past five games against Atleti, Messi’s failed to score, and while the Argentine star hasn’t been fully healthy for each contest, Atlético deserves a bulk of the credit. Against an Atleti side whose organization is often its greatest virtue, Messi hasn’t found the same types of chances he’d normally get.

(MORE: Manchester United, Bayern Munich both look to improve on leg one)

“Lionel Messi is used to competing at the maximum level in every game, so when people believe he doesn’t, it attracts a lot of attention,” Martino said, explaining Messi’s production against Atlético. “When there are several games against the same opponent in which he doesn’t score, that can surprise people.”

Be it from Messi, Neymar (the only Barça player to score against Atlético this year), Iniesta or somebody like Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona will need at least one goal on Wedesday. If Costa and Turan are close to 100 percent, it may need more. It may also need Thibault Courtois, Diego Godin, and Miranda to have off days, because after last week’s draw in Catalonia, Barça can’t afford to be kept off the scoresheet.

They don’t necessarily need a win, but Martino’s men do need to score. If Simeone can engineer a third 0-0, the Blaugrana go home.

NFL’s 49ers purchase minority stake in Leeds United

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One of England’s most famous clubs is receiving investment and strategic business connections from one of the NFL’s most famous brands.

Leeds United and the San Francisco 49ers announced Thursday that 49ers Enterprises, an investment arm of the 49ers ownership, has purchased a minority stake in the Championship club. Multiple reports state that the 49ers now own 10-15 percent of the club, but current Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani remains the majority owner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

As part of the deal, 49ers President Paraag Marathe gets a seat on the Leeds United board of directors. Per Leeds, the money invested will stay with the club and be used for the first team, as Leeds looks again to make its way back to the Premier League in next season’s campaign.

An American ownership group investing in England is nothing new, but to identify and purchase a stake in a club with history and a decent chance at making it to the Premier League is impressive. In addition, the York Family, who owns the 49ers, has a net worth in the billions, which could help fund Leeds’ push back into the Premier League.

For the 49ers, this is also a savvy business decision. By investing low in a club in the Championship, they hope that they can experience the financial windfall of playing in the Premier League. This season, clubs made a combined $3.2 billion (with a capital B) thanks to revenue sharing, international and domestic TV rights, and other sponsorship deals.

With even the relegated sides taking home nine figures in revenues from the league, who wouldn’t want to invest and take a cut of that?

Now, only time will tell how long it is before the 49ers influence helps – or hinders, based on the 49ers current state of affairs in the U.S. – Leeds reach the pinnacle of English football.

Iniesta joins Japanese club Vissel Kobe

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TOKYO (AP) Former Barcelona playmaker Andres Iniesta was introduced as the newest member of Japanese club Vissel Kobe on Thursday, a poorly kept secret that’s been rumored for weeks.

Iniesta appeared before a packed news conference at a central Tokyo hotel on Thursday along with Kobe’s billionaire owner, Hiroshi Mikitani.

[READ: Earnie Stewart being considered for U.S. Soccer post]

“I’m pleased to announce,” Mikitani said, “that Andres Iniesta will be signing up play with Vissel Kobe after his historic career at Barcelona.”

Iniesta signed his contract as Mikitani watched, and then spoke through an interpreter.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Japanese media are reporting he will earn $30 million annually on a three-year deal.

“For me this is a very special day,” the Spaniard said. “This is an important challenge for me. My family is excited to come to Japan and we are very pleased. There were many offers. Other clubs showed interest. But I decided to sign with Vissel Kobe because the project presented to me was impressive.”

Mikitani is also the CEO of Barcelona sponsor Rakuten, a Japanese online retailer.

Iniesta held up the team’s red shirt with his famous No. 8 on the back, and his name written across the bottom.

Iniesta previously had said he would probably retire from international soccer after Spain plays at this year’s World Cup in Russia.

The 34-year-old Iniesta scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. He also was a key part of Spain’s two European Championships in 2008 and 2012.

He announced last month he would leave Barcelona after 16 seasons. His last match for the Spanish club was on Sunday against Real Sociedad at Camp Nou.

Vissel Kobe is in sixth place after 15 games in the J-League. It signed Lukas Podolski last year, but the German striker is out until the end of June with an injured calf.

Yaya Toure talks future, wants to play with Paul Pogba

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There is very little debate: Yaya Toure is his own special case.

The longtime Manchester City midfielder does what he wants, flies his own flag, has the worst agent in the game, and is pleased or dismayed in unusual ways.

[ UCL: What would Real 3-peat mean? ]

Toure, 35, has been linked with a move to NYCFC now that he’s leaving Man City, but the Ivorian still wants to play two more seasons for a Champions League or Europa League club.

And he wants to get together with Paul Pogba. You can see where this is going… (from The Manchester Evening News):

“Pogba is the same size, power – but different in the way he wants to go. Technically as well, the ability to score goals as well. It is a player I want to play with, to be honest, just to teach him some things.”

That must mean both are going to Paris Saint-Germain because… Yaya at Manchester United? No way, right? Right? Even with last year’s reports from his — again — terrible agent that it was an option, that still seems too villainous.

“I don’t rule big teams out. The big teams are very important for me. What they want to achieve, the way they want to go, for me is very important. … I want to go somewhere I can win and achieve. It’s going to be hard one day to play against City, but I have to do that. It is part of my job.”

Toure later said he was “no good in an office,” which had us thinking, well, what if they properly celebrated your birthday, Yaya?

WATCH: Miami United midfielder unleashes Open Cup laser

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Tomas Granitto, have yourself an extra plate at the postgame buffet.

The Miami United midfielder scored a gorgeous goal in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over fellow NPSL side Jacksonville Armada in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

Complete with aesthetically-pleasing post-ping, the former El Salvador U-20 player laid into a 25-yard shot to open the scoring in Florida.

Granitto, 24, has played for Timbers 2, Swope Park Rangers, FC Edmonton, since leaving NCAA side Florida Gulf Coast.