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David takes on Goliath in French Cup final

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PARIS (AP) Les Herbiers players are experiencing a whole new world as they prepare for the biggest game of their careers.

In the buildup to Tuesday’s French Cup final against Paris Saint-Germain at the Stade de France, the third-division minnows have been invited to stay at Clairefontaine, the national football center known as “The Castle” where the country’s international players prepare for their matches.

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“I believe I have been staying in (Antoine) Griezmann’s room,” said Les Herbiers captain Sebastien Flochon. “It’s a dream come true, we are preparing for that final in ideal conditions. With all the history attached to this castle, we could not hope for a better place.”

In terms of players, budget, salaries and glamour, PSG and Les Herbiers – a small town with a population of just 16,000 – could not be more different. While super-rich PSG sealed the French league title with five games to spare last month, Les Herbiers has yet to secure its place in France’s third tier for next season.

The club from the Vendee region in western France has a stadium holding just 5,000 fans and a budget of about two million euros. Last summer, PSG paid 220 million euros to buy Brazil superstar Neymar from Barcelona.

And while PSG boast the likes of Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria and Kylian Mbappe, the Les Herbiers players don’t make headlines and reportedly earn 2,500 euros monthly on average.

To sum it up, Les Herbiers’ challenge looks like a lost cause.

“Some people rate our chances of winning at about one percent,” Flochon said. “It would be the biggest upset of the last 20 years.”

The fourth third-division side to reach the final after Nimes, Amiens and Quevilly, Les Herbiers has already beaten second-division teams Lens and Auxerre.

“Our chances are minuscule, but we will give ourselves fully,” Flochon said. “It will be important not to step onto the pitch thinking it’s already over.”

Facing one of Europe’s best attacks, Les Herbiers will be counting on goalkeeper Matthieu Pichot, who has allowed just five goals in nine cup games.

“What we have already achieved is extraordinary, some top-flight players have never experienced that,” Pichot said. “They are going to attack from everywhere and it will be a very unbalanced contest. If we manage to make them doubt, even just for a while, this final will be successful.”

Les Herbiers coach Stephane Masala’s tactics could also play a big role. A big fan of Italian football and Juventus, the 41-year-old coach is respected for his knowledge of the game and a style based on short passes.

“I’m stunned by my players’ abilities to turn thing around,” Masala said his team came from 2-0 down to beat Laval 3-2 in the league on Friday. “Knowing they took on PSG four days later, they could have given up. But no, they found the moral and mental resources to win, I’m very proud to be their coach.”

Despite the huge gap between the sides, PSG coach Unai Emery is not taking anything for granted as his players seek a fourth straight French Cup.

“It’s a final, it’s a title, it’s the French Cup,” he said. “If they got to the final, they deserve it. The best way to show respect is to play to win.”

More AP French league coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

La Liga roundup: Barcelona, Real Madrid remain level on points after wins (video)

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Routine wins from league favorites Barcelona and Real Madrid, highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Barcelona 5-2 RCD Mallorca

It was a special night at Barcelona’s Camp Nou.

Fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time, Lionel Messi was greeted by his three children on the field, who handed him a shinny, golden ball – given yearly to the best player in the world – prior to the first whistle.

From that point on, it was evident that it would be all smiles for everyone tied to the defending champions at the stadium (and for those watching remotely) on Saturday.

 

That was the case.

Antoine Griezmann – a topic of conversation due to lack of productivity at Barcelona this season – kicked off the game with a solo run and subsequent goal in the seventh minute, opening the floodgates.

As a celebration of his latest, individual accomplishment, Messi showcased the power and precision of his left foot at the tune of a hat-trick. The Argentine ace scored twice in the first half and another in consolation time, putting his season total mark at a league-best 12 goals.

The moment and goal of the night (possibly of the season) didn’t directly involve Messi, however. With a daring, emphatic and genius back-heel strike, not only did Luis Suarez put the home side up 4-1, but cemented himself in the ballot for best goal of the season.

With 34 and a better goal differential than Real Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of La Liga ahead of their clash with Inter Milan on Tuesday, while Mallorca hope Ante Budimir can score another brace; this time against a struggling Celta Vigo next weekend.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol

With goals from Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane, Real Madrid comfortably cruised past a struggling Espanyol.

With the majority of Real Madrid in Espanyol’s final third following a recovered free-kick attempt, Benzema charged his way into the box before laying off a ball to Varane, who not a proven goalscorer whatsoever, placed the ball into the back of the net with ease.

It was the 37th minute, and the home side were up 1-0 against a poor Espanyol.

With a notable superior style at hand, Los Blancos continued to surge forward. Opportunities at goal were generated but the ball wouldn’t go past ex-Real Madrid ‘keeper Diego Lopez.

Then, in the 79th minute, Benzema registered his 11th goal of the season, finishing an off-balance pass from Federico Valverde inside the box.

Winners in their last La Liga bouts, Real Madrid now prepare for their Champions League Group Stage finale against Club Brugge midweek. Espanyol, despite being in the drop zone, host CSKA Moscow in their Europa League Group Stage finale. The Catalonian club lead Group H with 11 points after five matches.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Granada 3-0 Alaves

Levante 2-4 Valencia

Ancelotti’s future uncertain after Napoli draws at Udinese

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ROME (AP) Carlo Ancelotti’s future as Napoli coach is uncertain after his team failed to beat Udinese on Saturday in Serie A.

The 1-1 draw extended Napoli’s winless run to nine matches in all competitions. Piotr Zelinski saved Napoli with a late goal that salvaged a point for the visitors.

Amid reports that Ancelotti could soon be fired, Napoli, which had won its last six league matches against Udinese, went a goal down after a counterattack which was finished by Kevin Lasagna in the 32nd minute.

Napoli improved after Fernando Llorente replaced an uninspired Lorenzo Insigne in the second half. It equalized after a good combination between Dries Mertens and Zielinski, who wrongfooted the Udinese ‘keeper with a shot into the bottom corner.

Also, Atalanta twice came from behind after Samuel Di Carmine’s two goals to beat Hellas Verona 3-2 with a late winner from Berat Djimsiti, who volleyed home from close range.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Walker: City catching up to Liverpool ‘difficult’ after derby loss to United

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After a crushing 2-1 loss to archrival Manchester United at home, 14 is the new magic number for Pep Guardiola and company.

14 is the number of points that Manchester City trail league leaders Liverpool by, an uphill battle that is influencing many people on the outside looking in to think that City’s chances of lifting the league’s silverware for a third straight season are officially done and dusted.

That’s not the narrative that is occupying Kyle Walker‘s train of thought, however. Speaking on behalf of his City teammates and himself, the defender is keen on fighting until they’re mathematically out of contention for the title, regardless if the standings show that Liverpool have yet to suffer a defeat this season after 16 matches.

“Can’t fault the manager,” Walker told Sky Sports following City’s second Premier League loss in five games. “He has won numerous trophies. I can’t put my finger on it. It is going to be difficult, Liverpool are on fire. They [Liverpool] are getting wins and we are not. It is a big gap but we will fight until the end.”

A consolation goal from Nicolas Otamendi in the 85th minutes wasn’t enough for the Cityzens, who endured a fourth league loss this season, matching last season’s number of losses throughout 38 games.

After the dispiriting derby day performance from City, the defending champions stand at 32 points after 16 bouts, the lowest point haul for Guardiola in his 11-year top-flight management career.

No team in league history has overcome a 14-point deficit. Since late October, City are yet to record a clean sheet, an apparent issue that Walker believes he and the rest of the team’s defenders need to address in order to return to old ways.

“Us as defenders need to hold our hands up,” he said. “We need to keep clean sheets and strikers maybe need to put more away. They had a game plan and it worked. They have quick players in quick areas and they are going to hurt you on the counter. Credit where credit is due, they stepped up today. Fair play.”

WATCH: Luis Suarez delivers one-of-a-kind back-heel goal

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At 32 years of age and with a 15-year career behind him, Luis Suarez has scored some emphatic goals.

On Saturday, however, he painted a fine piece of art, a goal that became an instant classic the moment the ball came off of his backheel. With Barcelona already up 3-1 against RCD Mallorca, Ernesto Valverde’s men continued to push forward, comfortably and strategically ping-ponging the ball around the defensive-oriented visitors.

And then Frenkie de Jong found the ball at the top of the box.

The Dutch international smoothly placed a through ball, finding Suarez, who with precision and expertise that only he has, belted the ball into the bottom-right corner of Manolo Reina’s goal.

It’s only December, but the Uruguayan’s goal is an automatic La Liga goal of the season contender: