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With Messi out, Coutinho, Dembele must step up for Barcelona

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) With Lionel Messi out with a broken arm, the two most expensive signings in Barcelona’s history have a perfect opportunity to step up and show their value.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Barcelona spent more than 300 million euros ($350 million) to sign Brazil midfielder Philippe Coutinho and France forward Ousmane Dembele last season as it reinvested the money – and then some – from Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain.

While both Coutinho and Dembele have shown several flashes of their world-class talent, neither has fully met the huge expectations that inevitably accompanied their price tags.

Messi set up Coutinho to net the opener and then added a second goal in a 4-2 win over Sevilla on Saturday in the Spanish league before he awkwardly fell on his right arm, which bent back and snapped a bone. The costly victory lifted Barcelona past Sevilla and to the top of the standings.

Now, while Barcelona’s all-time top scorer recovers, Coutinho and Dembele will be under pressure to lead the team in important games this week.

Barcelona hosts Inter Milan on Wednesday seeking a third victory in as many Champions League games. That will be followed by the always demanding “clasico” against Real Madrid at home on Sunday. Team doctors expect Messi to also be unavailable for three other games, including a visit to Inter next month.

“When (Messi) is with us he gives us a sense of security,” Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said. “He is the best in the world. You notice when he is not there, but whether he is with us or not, we have to keep going. We have a good team. We are playing well in time for the big week ahead.”

To acquire Dembele from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Barcelona agreed to a transfer deal that could reach 147 million euros ($169 million).

After a first campaign in Spain limited by injuries, Dembele returned from helping France to win the World Cup and made a strong start to the season by scoring five goals in nine consecutive starts.

But when Barcelona faced a challenging Champions League match at Tottenham, coach Ernesto Valverde left the 21-year-old Dembele on the bench in favor of Arthur in midfield. Barcelona won 4-2, with Messi scoring twice and Coutinho once.

Valverde replied “I don’t know” when asked if he thought Dembele had lost confidence.

“He participated in the start of the season,” Valverde said. “He hasn’t been a starter in the last three matches, but we are counting on him . He is very talented. We expect a lot from him and we think that he has the capacity to improve.”

Coutinho arrived from Liverpool in January for 160 million euros ($184 million) as part of the rebuild following Neymar’s departure. But despite regular goals, he needs to be more of a playmaker for Barcelona following the departure of Andres Iniesta.

Valverde can now deploy the pair, along with Arthur, with Messi out.

REAL MESS

Julen Lopetegui’s job as Real Madrid coach is in question following a club record scoring drought and a winless run of five consecutive matches.

But some of the problems that threaten to ruin Lopetegui actually began under predecessor Zinedine Zidane.

Even though the team won an unprecedented third Champions League in a row, Madrid played poorly in the other competitions during Zidane’s final season in charge.

Madrid had practically given up defending its 2016 league title after only three wins in nine matches from October to January. That came just before its stunning home loss to Leganes that eliminated it from the Copa del Rey.

Instead of significantly reinforcing a flawed team that also lost top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo in the offseason, Madrid signed a pair of backups and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Lopetegui needs his team to rebound immediately with a winning streak, starting against Viktoria Plzen on Tuesday and at Barcelona.

Madrid defender Marcelo said the players were behind Lopetegui. He compared the situation of the first-year coach to that of Rafa Benitez, who was fired after seven months on the job and replaced by Zidane in 2016.

“We are completely behind our coach,” Marcelo said. “(The media criticism) is unfair. It is like what happened to Benitez. I don’t like it when coaches aren’t allowed to work.”

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Kaku gets 3 matches for booting ball into crowd, injuring spectator

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The struggling New York Red Bulls got a major let-off Wednesday with the news that Kaku would only be suspended two more matches for blasting a ball into a group of fans.

It’s a total of three matches away from the Red Bulls after the incident, which occurred against Sporting KC on April 14.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby recap ]

Someone must have convinced the league that Kaku’s intent was to smash the ball into the advertising boards and not the fans, and injuring a spectator certainly could’ve carried a much longer suspension than three matches.

Kaku already missed a match against New England and will sit out matches against FC Cincinnati and the LA Galaxy.

The 24-year-old midfielder, thrice capped by Paraguay, has seven goals and 14 assists during little more than a season with RBNY. The Red Bulls have started the season 1W-4L-2T.

Solskjaer: Man City “had too much for” Manchester United

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Manchester United has spent a lot of money on players, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says the talent on show at Old Trafford is nothing compared to rivals Manchester City.

What else could he say after his rivals outclassed him 2-0 on Wednesday, a club which wasn’t even in the same league — physically and metaphorically — for half of his tenure as a player for Manchester United?

[ MORE: Manchester Derby recap | 4 things ]

“They had too much for us,” Solskjaer said after the loss. “They are the best team in the country, they have set the standard in the last two seasons and I don’t know how many points they’ve taken. What Pep Guardiola has done with his players is remarkable and we are so close to it in the vicinity so we feel it every day.”

This was a different loss than the lackluster 4-0 blowout at the hands of Everton on Sunday, as United definitely worked hard but had little to offer in attack aside from a few choice Paul Pogba long balls and some wayward finishing from an industrious Jesse Lingard.

“There is a difference in quality,” Solskjaer said in another interview. “That is why they are top and we are where we are. Living in Manchester we cannot be happy with that. It is up to us to close that gap and overtake them.”

[ MORE: Pep reacts | Sane with NBCSN crew ]

We bet every one those words felt like broken glass climbing out of Solskjaer’s throat.

It’s going to take a squad revolution and then time to settle into a new reality. United is probably at least another full season from contending with City, even given last season’s runner-up finish.

And that has to be weird for a manager who was used to seeing the noisy neighbors stationed in the Championship. Solskjaer knows he has a lot of work to do at Old Trafford. Will his bosses let him do it?

I understand Pep using me off the bench, says super sub Sane

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Leroy Sane added a second 10-goal season to his Premier League resume on Wednesday when Man City beat Manchester United 2-0 at Old Trafford.

That he did so in about 650 less minutes says something about his growth and patience as Pep Guardiola has opted to focus on other options in attack.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby recap | 4 things ]

“The mood is obviously you want to play every game but in this squad it’s sometimes normal that you can sit on the bench,” Sane said in a post-match pitch-side talk with the NBCSN crew.

“It’s why I’m not really disappointed. I think in my own head to work harder and stay focused. On the pitch there are really good players playing good. I appreciate it, I enjoy it, and I can learn from this.”

Arlo White asked Sterling whether he believes City are the favorites to win the Premier League title. Liverpool is a point behind City, but has two of its three remaining matches at home compared to City’s one.

“It’s hard to say,” Sane said. “There’s a lot of pressure from Liverpool, but we stay focused on game to game. We have it in our own hands, so just stay focused, and try to win the last three games.”

Pep urges increased focus after Man City keeps PL title control

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Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are officially over their UEFA Champions League exit, and now salivating at the idea of defending their Premier League crown following a 2-0 defeat of Manchester United on Wednesday.

And the manager is now demanding that his players get laser-focused on the game-by-game.

[ MORE: Recap | 3, er, 4 things ]

“I told the players don’t read tomorrow, don’t watch the television, just rest and sleep a lot and go in there against Burnley,” Guardiola said.

The Man City boss says the side’s early second half changes, taking off Fernandinho to move in Leroy Sane and slot Ilkay Gundogan a bit deeper made the difference from 0-0 to 2-0.

“We knew without Romelu Lukaku they would try more runs in behind,” he said. “The chances we lost came from us losing simple balls in the middle and we changed things in the second half, with Ilkay Gundogan in the middle and with Leroy Sane on we were more dynamic.”

And Guardiola tried to find the words to explain how either Man City or Liverpool will walk away from this season at second place in the league despite being two of the greatest sides ever produced by England.

“Both teams deserve the title, but it can be just one,” Guardiola said. “The team that is going to lose cannot have regrets because they have given everything. Normally with this kind of victory you can it enjoy it the most but now we have to be calm. We have to be in the right phase.”