Barcelona vs. Juventus: Five key battles in the UEFA Champions League final

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Barcelona vs. Juventus. The Spanish champions vs. the Italian champions.

One side will be crowned European champions in the UEFA Champions League final in Berlin on Saturday. The losers will cry themselves to sleep eating either paella or pizza.

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Ahead of the monster clash at the Olympiastadion — both sides know a victory will seal a memorable treble — here’s a look at five key battles which will play out on the pitch.

Lionel Messi vs. Leonardo Bonucci

Messi was described by Juventus’ legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon as an “extra-terrestrial playing with us humans” in the build up to this game. Yeah, that’s about right. Scoring goals like this one on his way to 58 strikes in 56 games this season, it is hard to see exactly how Juve can stop Messi. However, they did lessen the impact of Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the semifinal and Italian international Bonucci will have the task of marshaling the incredible Messi. Usually the powerful Bonucci gets help from his partner in crime Giorgio Chiellini but the latter is out injured. Juventus have only conceded seven goals this season in the UCL but a reshuffle from three to four at the back and losing a key center back is not ideal for a game as big as this against a striker as good as Messi.

Javier Mascherano vs. Carlos Tevez

What a duel this promises to be. Mascherano and Tevez both came to English soccer in the same transfer in 2006 when they arrived at West Ham United and the Argentine internationals are close friends off the pitch. All of that will be put aside for 90 minutes on Saturday with Mascherano set to man mark Tevez. A central midfielder by trade, Mascherano makes up for his lack of height at center back by reading the game superbly and striding out of the back line to show off his distribution skills. Tevez, 31, is enjoying a sensational season for Juve as the former Manchester City and Manchester United star will be looking to win his second UCL title as a player and add to the seven UCL goals he has so far this season. No love lost between these two. Perhaps the most intriguing individual battle on the pitch.

Dani Alves vs. Patrice Evra

Both of these full backs have won the Champions League but both are very different defenders. Evra, now 34 years old, is more of a traditional full back who defends first and sits back but Alves loves to bomb forward and create overloaded situations for Messi, Neymar and Suarez to exploit down the right. It will be a great battle to dominate this flank. Expect plenty of meaty challenges and theatrics as the game unfolds.

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Ivan Rakitic vs. Paul Pogba

This is where Juventus could really get the edge. Rakitic is a sublimely talented player and has kept Xavi out of the starting lineup for Barca for most of this season. But can the Croatian match up to the physicality of Pogba? The man they call the Octopus will be all over Rakitic like a rash and if Pogba can break through the lines and get running at Barca’s defense, the Spaniards could be in big trouble. On the other side of the coin, if Pogba doesn’t track back then Rakitic is superb with the ball and can pick out defense-splitting passes for the deadly trio ahead of him. A key battle in deciding the game.

Andres Iniesta vs. Andrea Pirlo

Ah. Let’s save the best until last. Two maestros will do battle in the engine room as Iniesta and Pirlo purr like a finely tuned Ferrari when they get on the ball. Both men have bags of experience with Pirlo, 36, surely getting his last chance to play in the UCL final after winning two titles with AC Milan back in 2003 and 2007. As for Iniesta, he has captained Barcelona this season in the absence of his tiki-taka partner Xavi and has already won the UCL three times with the only club he has ever played for. Both players will want to dictate the tempo and get on the ball as much as possible. Expect to see dazzling passes and mind-blowing composure from two geniuses. Will either deliver the game-winning moment with a piece of magic?

Slow start dooms Southampton again: “We lost the game in first half”

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Slow starts are, ironically, quickly becoming the story of Southampton’s Premier League season. It happened again on Friday, resulting in a 3-1 home defeat to Bournemouth in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. In those four games, they have taken just one point. When scoring the game’s first goal, they have two wins and two clean sheets.

It would appear that Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side is set up to play one way, and one way only. Speaking after Friday’s defeat, Hasenhuttl lamented his side’s slow start, conceding that the game was all but lost when they fell 2-0 behind in the 35 minutes — quotes from the BBC:

“The finish was not important anymore. If you lose 2-1 or 3-1 it does not make too much difference. We lost the game in the first half.

“In the second half, we were sharp. Had about 26 shots to six from Bournemouth but the most important stat is the goals. They scored three, we scored once.

“We weren’t aggressive enough and too easy in the first half. It is not easy to be 1-0 down after 10 minutes. We had a lot of blocked shots and misses near the post. It was a good performance in the second half but without a result.

“For the second goal was had a lot of players in our attacking box so it was not easy to defend.

“We showed a good reaction because we knew we needed to be brave. We changed our shape and were aggressive for the second ball. It gave us 64% possession and we had a lot of shots. Maybe we didn’t deserve to take something because of our first half.”

Southampton’s next chance to start a game quickly will come in an away bout with Tottenham Hotspur next Saturday.

Bournemouth carried over the line by ‘fight and belief’

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It wasn’t pretty — at least not in the second half — but Bournemouth had enough “fight and belief” to get themselves over the line for a first-ever win away to Southampton on Friday.

[ Premier League Previews: Leicester City v. Tottenham | Man City v. Watford ]

Speaking after the game, Cherries manager Eddie Howe was obviously pleased by the victory in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry, but quickly turned his attention to a list of areas in which his team came up short and was perhaps fortunate to hold onto a 2-1 lead prior to Callum Wilson‘s gifted goal in the 95th minute — quotes from the BBC:

“It was a nice moment. We rarely get those moments in football where you get that pure emotion and joy for a few seconds. Then you start thinking about next week.

“You want the players brought down to earth because you want the focus on consistent success. In the first, half we were okay. We didn’t hit the heights we are capable of. We were scrappy and didn’t keep the ball as well as I wanted, but we had spirit and sometimes that’s the most important thing.

“In the second half, we were reactive and looked tired and that’s where we needed to show our heart to see the game out. There were some heroics from our goalkeeper too.”

As for defender Nathan Ake, scorer of Bournemouth’s first goal, it was all about digging deep for the desire and will to win. The 24-year-old has established himself as one of the first names on Howe’s teamsheet every week at this point.

“It was a very tough game. The fans are buzzing. It was a great three points. The manager said to put the ball in the box.

“It was a great ball and it fell on my head. In the second half, we made it difficult for ourselves. We didn’t keep hold of the ball and had to defend more. The last result against Everton was great so it gives you confidence, but we had to fight and believe we could win.”

Had you offered anyone associated with Bournemouth 10 points from their first six games, they would have snatched your hand off to take them. A thoroughly solid start to the season. Up next is a visit from ninth-place West Ham United next Saturday.

Bournemouth picks up first-ever win away to Southampton

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Bournemouth picked up its first-ever victory (16 visits – all competitions) away to Southampton in the Premier League‘s budding south coast rivalry, 3-1 at St. Mary’s Stadium on Friday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Nathan Ake and Harry Wilson got goals for Eddie Howe‘s side during a wonderfully dominant first-half performance before the roles were reversed in the second half. James Ward-Prowse pulled Southampton back to 2-1 not long after halftime and Saints pressed and pressed for an equalizer but ultimately came up empty. To make matters worse, Callum Wilson put the game away on a late Saints howler.


3 things we learned

  1. Slow starts for Saints — Through six games, Saints have conceded the first goal four times. For a team that’s built around the idea of defensive solidity and limiting chances, Ralph Hasenhuttl‘s side appears especially limited once forced to change its plan of attack and… well, attack. In the two games they didn’t concede first, two clean sheets and two wins.
  2. Halftime adjustments — Hasenhuttl certainly got his tactics wrong from the start, but whatever was said at halftime made a noticeable difference in the second half. Given loads more freedom to push forward in attack and to win back possession, Southampton made it a game from 45:01 onward.
  3. Making few chances count a lot — Bournemouth needed just six shots to get their two goals. On the other hand, they managed just six shots in 90 minutes. Highly efficient, or lacking in overall production? Both, perhaps?

Man of the Match: Oriol Romeu


Ake put the Cherries ahead in the 10th minute, rising high above the crowd to get his head to Diego Rico‘s corner kick. It was Bournemouth’s fifth goal (of nine scored) from a set piece this season.

It didn’t take long for Bournemouth to easily cut through Saints’ four-man backline — a tactical change from the three-man operation which secured a victory away to Sheffield United last weekend — and put the ball in the back of the net again. Joshua King finished a devastating counter-attack with a sublime finish, only to have the goal taken off the board for being narrowly offside, via video review.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Once again, Bournemouth met little resistance en route to doubling their lead, only this time the goal stood. Philip Billing got to the endline down the left side of Saints’ penalty area and cut the ball back to the penalty spot where Wilson was waiting to sweep it past a helpless Angus Gunn.

Saints were gifted their way back into the game in the 52nd minute, when Steve Cook went straight through Che Adams as Southampton broke down the left side of the box. Ward-Prowse stepped up to the spot and hammered the ball past Aaron Ramsdale to cut the deficit in half.

Saints’ best chance at drawing level came in the 82nd minute, but Ward-Prowse was denied Ramsdale from close range, and though he spilled the rebound in front of goal, Bournemouth were able to clear the ball away in just the nick of time.

Gunn and center back Jannik Vestergaard ran into one another outside the Saints penalty area in the 95th minute, allowing Wilson to pick the ball up and walk it over the end line for the late exclamation point on Bournemouth’s historic night.

Bournemouth’s defensive desperation was such that they attempted just the six shots in the game, including zero between the 38th and 85th minutes. Alas, Saints couldn’t find the equalizer and Bournemouth catapulted all the way up to third in the PL, for the time being.

Watch Live: Southampton v. Bournemouth

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Southampton takes on Bournemouth in a battle of south-coast clubs at the St. Mary’s Stadium (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Both teams enter the match with seven points, and a win can, for the time being, vault either side into the top four until the rest of the weekend’s games take place.

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Interestingly, Southampton have ruled the roost when it comes to matchups against Bournemouth. Southampton has won three, drawn four and lost just once in Premier League matches against Bournemouth, but perhaps this time it could be different.

Both teams are coming off wins, though Bournemouth’s 3-1 shock of Everton could be seen as more impressive than Southampton’s 1-0 victory over Sheffield United.

Watch the game with us at the link above, and stay on PST for analysis and reaction at halftime and following the final whistle.


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