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Barcelona caught in storm over Catalonia’s independence vote

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Politics and soccer will merge on Sunday when Barcelona becomes more than just a football club for Catalonia’s separatists.

Barcelona’s home match against Las Palmas falls on the day when the region’s secessionist leaders have vowed to defy authorities and hold a disputed referendum on independence from Spain.

The Spanish government calls the vote illegal and has ordered a crackdown to stop any ballots from being cast, sparking protests in the streets and universities.

The dispute has increased tensions in the proud and prosperous region to fever pitch – and Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium will be no exception.

“It won’t be a normal day, it will be a historic day for the country, but we have to treat the football match like any other,” Barcelona vice president Jordi Cardoner said. “We will carry the Catalan flag’s (red and yellow) colors on the collars of our shirts and in our hearts.”

Europe’s largest stadium at nearly 100,000 seats, Camp Nou has become a rallying point for Catalan nationalists in recent years with the boom in support for a break from Spain that polls show has reached roughly half of the region’s 7.5 million residents.

Spain’s King Felipe VI met with deafening jeers at Camp Nou at the final of the Copa del Rey in 2015, and the chants of “Independence!” that are a fixed feature of every home match are set to be at maximum volume come Sunday.

Given the super-charged atmosphere, the club has called for calm and for the spirit of sport to prevail.

“We are not uncomfortable with the date of the match. It’s an important day for Catalonia and the interests of Barca have to be compatible with the majority of Catalans,” Cardoner said. “I believe that each one of our members and fans can express whatever they want, but we ask them to do it respectfully. We are focusing on the competition. We all want to win the match.”

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique is also giving advice.

“From today until Sunday we will express ourselves pacifically,” Pique tweeted on Thursday. “Don’t give them any excuse (for a crackdown). That’s what they want. And sing loud and clear.”

Pique and the rest of Barcelona’s players have good reason not to get distracted by the whirlwind of politics and police activity. The team is on an eight-game winning run, leads the league, and holds a seven-point advantage over fierce rival Real Madrid in sixth place.

Barcelona’s football club became identified as a bastion of Catalan culture during the repressive years of Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939-1975, when the Catalan language, which is spoken alongside Spanish, was banned from schools and public use. Its slogan “More than a club” has come to mean for many its commitment to Catalonia.

In the past four decades Catalonia has gained a large degree of self-governance and boasts one of the strongest economies of the southern European country. Still, many Catalans feel disrespected by the central government in Madrid and complain that they pay more in taxes than they receive back in public spending.

Barcelona’s rivalry with Real Madrid carries political overtones for many, with “Barca” representing Catalonia and Real Madrid standing in for the rest of Spain.

Most of Barcelona’s players avoid talking about politics but former player and coach Pep Guardiola has led pro-independence rallies and is an outspoken proponent of Sunday’s vote.

“This isn’t about independence, it’s about democracy,” Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, said in a video posted on social media by a separatist grassroots group this week.

Barcelona has openly backed a referendum and criticized the robust steps taken by authorities to impede the vote that Spain’s government considers unconstitutional since questions of state should involve all Spaniards, not just those in one region.

Many Catalans are lukewarm supporters at best of Spain’s national team, which would lose several key players, including Pique, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, if Catalonia separated.

Catalonia already has a regional selection that plays the occasional friendly. It got a huge boost when it was coached by Dutch great Johan Cruyff, and it has played top-level national sides including Argentina and Brazil.

Police have decreased the chances of separatists being able to hold a wide-scale vote, which pro-union parties have boycotted on grounds that it is outside the law and lacking in guarantees of transparency.

But Barcelona’s alignment with the separatist cause is in direct conflict with its desire to remain one of the world’s most successful soccer teams.

Not only would Barcelona run the risk of alienating supporters across Spain, the big fear is the potential flight of its top stars, led by Lionel Messi.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas and Spain’s Higher Council of Sport have repeatedly warned that Barcelona and the other football clubs in Catalonia would be out of La Liga if the region seceded.

Tebas recently said that Barcelona would be in a Catalan division that “wouldn’t be much better than the Dutch league.”

Dele drives Spurs past Norwich City

Tottenham Hotspur match recap and highlights
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A win is a win, even if Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 home defeat of Norwich City was anything but convincing in London.

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Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son scored as Spurs climbed sixth in the table with 34 points.

Teemu Pukki scored for the spot for the Canaries, who remain dead last and six points off the safe spaces.


Three things we learned

1. Spurs can score in 2020: The Premier League had not been kind to Jose Mourinho’s men since a they twice came back in a 2-2 draw with these same Canaries at Carrow Road. In fact, Spurs went 315 Premier League minutes without a goal before Dele got his first half marker on Wednesday. Losses to Saints and Liverpool were joined by a weekend draw at Watford, so this win was vital (Spurs thrice scored over two FA Cup matches versus Middlesbrough).

2. Bounces go the way of Spurs: Norwich can forgive itself for feeling a bit snakebit considering how poor Spurs looked for most of the day. Dele’s shot or cross was deflected high toward the back post, where Heung-min Son was able to nod it over the line from extreme close-up range.

3. Serge Aurier shines: Bad Serge Aurier shows up quite a bit, but the full back had a great day on Wednesday. Aurier had an assist to go with two interceptions and three tackles. He was a menace and stuck into 50-50 battles, earning plaudits on the day.


Erik Lamela was lively early for Spurs, seeing a free kick deflected out for a corner and another chance saved by Tim Krul.

Dele put Spurs ahead when he lunged past Christoph Zimmermann to poke a Serge Aurier cross past Krul. Heung-min Son set up the play with a lay-off to the Ivorian.

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VAR was kind to Todd Cantwell early in the second half, as the sliding midfielder put his studs into Lamela and it was worth only a yellow card.

Spurs youngster Ryan Sessegnon fouled Max Aarons in the 68th to give Norwich a chance from the spot, and a long review did not lead to a reprieve. Pukki beat Lloris low and to the right for 1-1.

But Dele’s cross floated to Son for a back post winner and blushes were spared for Mourinho.

Leicester City smashes West Ham, loses Vardy

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Leicester City snapped a two-match losing run with a 4-1 defeat of West Ham United on Wednesday.

The third-place Foxes move to 48 points, but lost Jamie Vardy and Nampalys Mendy to first half injuries.

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Harvey Barnes and Ricardo Pereira set each other up for goals and Ayoze Perez scored twice late in the win.

Mark Noble scored a penalty of his own for the losing side, whose 23 points are out of the drop zone on goal differential. The Irons have played one fewer match than everyone but Liverpool.


Three things we learned

1. Barnes rides high:  Harvey Barnes is having an uneven season in the Premier League, like many to just turn 22. But the youngster is certainly on an upswing, having scored in a weekend loss at Burnley and collecting a goal and an assist on Wednesday. His six assists lead the Foxes, and may just be the tip of the iceberg.

2. More of the same from West Ham (and that’s not good): David Moyes‘ West Ham looks a lot like Manuel Pellegrini‘s West Ham, which isn’t a surprise given the latter’s better reputation in recent seasons. It’s a draw and two losses since the 4-0 win over an abject Bournemouth, and the Irons’ match-in-hand on the relegation field is against Liverpool (who they still face twice). Felipe Anderson is set to miss a month and that won’t ease concerns either.

3. Vardy injury, defense a big concern: The league’s leading scorer got his leg stretched out on the pitch and was favoring his gluteal area in the first half, eventually limping off the field. Losing him would ask a lot of Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Foxes also would be wrong to overlook another goal conceded, even if it came by controversial penalty. Leicester has conceded in seven of eight league matches,  and five included multiple goals. It’s not a huge worry in a 4-1, but a trend indeed.

Man of the Match: Barnes.


Jamie Vardy cut into the box early but his first touch betrayed him and couldn’t get full power on a shot to Darren Randolph.

The in-form Barnes got the Foxes in front by turning a Ricardo Pereira dinked pass into the open goal.

An injury to Nampalys Mendy accelerated the return of Wilfred Ndidi to the pitch, the midfielder returning in the 34th minute.

Vardy was then forced off the pitch with an apparent back injury, bringing Kelechi Iheanacho into the fold in the 44th minute.

Barnes then returned the favor to Pereira, who whistled his effort into the goal in the fifth minute of first half stoppage time.

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But hold on.

Noble needed just five second half minutes to pull one back for David Moyes’ men, as Sebastien Haller won a suspect penalty off Ndidi.

Kasper Schmeichel made a fine save on Michail Antonio to keep it 2-1.

Leiceste regained control and looked the only threat to make it 3-1 after that, with Perez converted a penalty after Angelo Ogbonna fouled Kelechi Iheanacho.

The Nigerian forward then set up Perez for his second to salt away the win.

Leicester City’s Vardy limps off pitch versus West Ham

Jamie Vardy injury
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January is not being kind to English forwards.

Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy limped off the pitch at King Power Stadium on Wednesday, an apparent upper leg injury the cause.

It was a non-contact injury, as Vardy pulled up lame after clearing the ball.

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Kelechi Iheanacho replaced Vardy, who leads the Premier League Golden Boot race by one goal over Sergio Aguero.

Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham was injured in Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal, while Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford are all nursing long-term injuries.

That had led many to infer that England manager Gareth Southgate might ask Vardy to reconsider his international retirement, but here we are.

Leicester City is in the thick of a Top Four chase in the hopes of returning to the UEFA Champions League, and losing Vardy would be a monumental blow.

Griezmann’s second half brace saves Barcelona from shock upset in Ibiza

Barcelona survives Copa del Rey scare
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Like a college kid on Spring Break, Barcelona vastly underestimated the power of Ibiza.

One of the biggest clubs in the world had loads of trouble in its Copa del Rey Round of 32 meeting at UD Ibiza on Wednesday.

Barcelona barely got past the third-tier side thanks to two Antoine Griezmann goals and a comeback 2-1 win at the Estadi Municipal de Can Misses.

UD Ibiza playing in a 5,000-seat stadium, took a ninth-minute lead and had more shot attempts as late as the 65th minute. New manager Quique Setien was left to sweat it out.

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Somewhat fitting that a man named Pep got the early goal. Josep Caballe Martin has more yellow cards than goals in Segunda B this season.

Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, and an injured Luis Suarez were among the players left behind, but this wasn’t a massively depleted Barcelona side. Arturo Vidal and Jordi Alba were brought off the bench.

Frenkie de Jong set up Griezmann for a 72nd minute equalizer, and Griezmann added his second off an Alba feed in the fourth minute of stoppage time.