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Conte gets tactics spot on but Messi has last laugh

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LONDON — Before the game Antonio Conte‘s tactics were the talk of the press room at Stamford Bridge, plus pubs and television studios around the world.

After the game his decision to play Eden Hazard in a false nine position, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and leave out his two star center forwards, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, was lauded. This was a reminder of the man who led Chelsea to Premier League glory last season and also a reminder of Chelsea’s successful past against the Catalan giants as they’re now unbeaten in their last eight UCL encounters as the clash of styles continues.

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Conte is under pressure with just five wins in his last 13 games in all competitions, but this was a tactical masterclass from the Italian coach as his side totally bought into his plan and without a mistake from Andreas Christensen late on, it would have been an archetypal Italian defensive display leading to a 1-0 win to take to the Nou Camp.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Conte believed his players were incredibly unlucky to not win the game as Willian struck the post twice in the first half and they threatened multiple times on the counter.

“We were very close to playing the perfect game. One mistake and we know very well when you make a mistake against Barcelona and players like Messi, Suarez and Iniesta you pay. It is a pity because tonight, at the end of the game, we are disappointed for the final result,” Conte said. “We hit the post twice with Willian. There is a bit of disappointment but I think that this game must give us confidence to trust that in the second leg that qualification is open. It won’t be easy. We must be realistic. We are talking about Barcelona. Tonight we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, but at the same time you continue to have the right feeling when you win the ball to create chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at the Nou Camp.”

The one wrench in Conte’s plan was always going to be one incredible player: Lionel Messi.

Without a goal in eight games (730 minutes in total) against Chelsea, the five-time World Player of the Year stroked home a killer away goal 15 minutes from time to swing the tie back into Barcelona’s favor after Conte’s masterclass. Messi, 30, once again arrived at the pivotal moment for the La Liga leaders and the Argentine star sprung into life as Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta made the most of Christensen’s mistake.

Messi’s presence on the ball sparked nervousness within the Chelsea defense but it looked like he would leave empty hand once again until he was gifted a chance to silence the doubters.

Barcelona had 73 percent of possession on Tuesday and attempted 887 passes to Chelsea’s 325. They looked comfortable in a cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge and even though they were vulnerable on the counter, they never looked too flustered but only had two real chances via Paulinho in the first half and Suarez in the second.

Despite following the blueprint to get a result against Barcelona almost to a tee, Cesc Fabregas believes the Blues will have to be more expansive at the Nou Camp in the second leg to get through to the quarterfinals.

“We have showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through,” Fabregas told BT Sport. “You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70 percent of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

As for Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde, he admitted that he was a happy man to escape West London with a draw but urged his side to respect Chelsea’s style of play in the second leg.

“It has been a clash of styles this game, two different teams,” Ernesto said. “We tried to control the game, had a lot of possession and got close to the area. We were just lacking a little bit of extra quality in the final third. They defended very well. The good thing is we managed to get an error and get a goal out of them. We will go back to the Camp Nou happy.”

Conte was happy his players followed his gameplan and believes they must believe they can deliver killers blows on the break in Barcelona in two weeks time with Willian, Pedro and Hazard key to the plan.

“I must be pleased because the players did a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared,” Conte said. “In 15 days we must be ready to prepare for another game against Barcelona. We must be prepared to suffer together but in the moment you are suffering, you must know that the moment you are in possession you can create a chance to score.”

Chelsea need at least one goal to go through or to take the game to extra time, but given their spirited display at Stamford Bridge there’s renewed hope that Conte can mastermind another defensive masterplan to get them into the last eight for the first time since 2014.

10-man Red Bulls hold off Atlanta United at home

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Atlanta United’s five-game winning streak went up in smoke as the New York Red Bulls pulled off an incredible 1-0 victory.

Playing down a man for around 65 minutes, the Red Bulls shutout Atlanta United’s high powered offense in front of 18,495 fans at Red Bull Arena. Tom Barlow, in just his second appearance with the Red Bulls, scored the game-winning goal in the 65th minute off a header at the far post, one that left U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan rooted to his line.

[READ: Pep: Domestic Treble harder than UCL]

Tim Parker was shown a straight red card in controversial fashion, after grabbing Josef Martinez’s left arm with Martinez in front of him just outside the box. Martinez was clearly pulled back but continued running and eventually got a shot off that Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles parried away.

Referee Robert Sbiga then decided to call the play back and award Atlanta United a free kick outside the box. After what seemed to be consultation with his assistants, Sbiga then showed Parker a straight red card, likely for denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO) while Martinez was through on goal.

The outcome is a massive one for the Red Bulls. It’s been a rough season, with the loss of both Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams and the poor form of Bradley Wright-Phillips up top. Wright-Phillips was out on Sunday and another attacker Andreas Ivan, went off with an injury in the first half as he was about to be substituted off anyways following the red card.

Alejandro Romero Gamarra, Kaku, has made his feelings known that he wants (or wanted) to leave the club. His form hasn’t been stellar this season either.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s finally found its way back into the win column and is looking more like the juggernaut from last season, especially with five-straight shutout wins. It’s all back to zero today though, with the defeat at the Red Bulls on a perfect grass pitch up a man.

Mbappe hints he could leave PSG

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Kylian Mbappe accepted his award as the Ligue 1 MVP, dedicated it to Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and then mentioned he could be off soon to another club.

Wait, what?

Yes, following Mbappe accepting his award, the French star and World Cup winner stated he hoped he could continue his career at PSG but left open the possibility of moving to another club that allows him to take the next steps in his career.

[READ: Kompany to join Anderlecht as player-manager]

“This is a very important moment for me, I arrive at a first or second turn of my career,” Mbappe said, via L’equipe. “I’ve discovered a lot of things here, I feel that maybe it’s time to have more responsibility. I hope it may be at Paris Saint-Germain, it would be with great pleasure, or perhaps elsewhere for a new project.”

Mbappe later clarified his comments, stating he was looking for more responsibility. “If it’s at PSG, that’s good. If it is elsewhere, it will be elsewhere for a new challenge.

“For me, it was time to say it. I am someone whole: when I say something, I think it. For me, it was the right time to say it. That’s it, I said it!”

It’s unclear why exactly Mbappe used this moment to put some pressure on PSG. Perhaps its to remind them that the club needs to be successful in its transfer endeavors this summer, so it can compete deep into the UEFA Champions League. With Neymar injured and a central midfield ravaged by injuries, PSG capitulated and somehow fell to Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s no reason why PSG can’t dominate the Champions League like it does Ligue 1, especially with the attacking trident of Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani. But of course, against better competition, the inferiority in mentality and in talent along the backline has started to show.

So, where could Mbappe go? There’s very few places that could effectively match both his salary and his competitive goals. It’s the usual suspects, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and perhaps Manchester City, should they be interested in it. More recently, while Man City has spent big, it’s been on signing multiple players on $50 million transfers, as opposed to one player on a $200 million transfer, for example.

It’s unlikely, but an intriguing option would be Liverpool. If the club somehow came up with the funds, imagine Mbappe playing alongside Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, with Roberto Firmino coming in to spell either of the three over the course of the season. Mbappe would likely make up that one-point difference between Liverpool and Man City, and if that’s what it takes for Liverpool to finally win the title, it could be worth the initial massive investment.

Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

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Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.