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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.

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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.”

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

Nashville signs Mexican striker for MLS 2020 debut, loans him to USL

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Nashville has its first official Major League Soccer signing, and it’s raided a USL rival to land him for the 2020 season.

[ REPORT: New Chelsea deal for Kante? ]

Daniel Rios is the debut member of their MLS side, and the 23-year-old Mexican striker will spend the 2019 season on loan to USL side Nashville SC.

Rios is bringing an outstanding 2018 season west from North Carolina, where he scored 20 goals and 13 assists for NCFC.

A former Mexico U-20 player, Rios was on loan to NCFC from Chivas Guadalajara.

LIVE: USMNT vs. Italy – Pulisic wearing captain’s armband

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Christian Pulisic may be only 20-years old, but he’ll have to take a big step up in leadership on Tuesday evening.

Pulisic has been given the captain’s armband for the first time as the youth-laden U.S. Men’s National Team side finishes the 2018 calendar slate facing an experimental Italy side. The U.S. Starting XI has an average age of just 22-years and 71 days, making it the youngest lineup in the modern era.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s Joe Prince-Wright reporting LIVE from Genk, Belgium ]

It’s also a chance for fans to see Josh Sargent play alongside Pulisic, while two members of the New York Red Bulls, Tyler Adams and Aaron Long, both make starts on this cool Tuesday evening. Reggie Cannon and Shaq Moore earn the nods at wing back and Cameron Carter-Vickers also makes his return to the field, after Dave Sarachan went with Matt Miazga and John Anthony Brooks against England in central defense. The USMNT will play with a three-man backline against Italy.

Stay tuned to PST for wall-to-wall coverage, reaction and analysis of Thursday’s game as soon as the final whistle blows.

Report: Chelsea to double Kante’s wages

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Count Chelsea’s ownership and coaching staff among the many who value N'Golo Kante‘s talents, and are willing to pay big bucks for them.

According to a report in The Telegraph, Chelsea and Kante have agreed on a new five-year contract, worth $19.9 million per season. If true, Kante’s new contract doubles the French World Cup winner’s wages as he continues to prove his mettle as the top holding midfielder in the Premier League.

[READ: U.S. U-20s to face Mexico in CONCACAF U-20 Championship]

Kante’s so far scored one goal in 18 appearances in all competitions for Chelsea under new manager Maurizio Sarri, who has paired Kante in midfield with Jorginho. The Brazilian-born Italian serves as the deep-lying playmaker while Kante is the destroyer, winning the ball back before it gets into the final third.

The new contract is significant because in the past, mainly attackers have been given large contracts while defensive-minded players have had to settle for smaller wages. However, nearly $20 million per season is no small chunk of change, and this could raise the rest of the tide of holding midfielders across the Premier League.

For Chelsea, the club needed to re-sign Kante and keep him happy, in part because their title ambitions rest with him. The lure of playing for Paris Saint-Germain or Real Madrid can be strong, but with Chelsea paying his wages, he now has almost $20 million reasons not to leave Stamford Bridge.

UEFA to introduce VAR in Champions League knockout stage

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Following a successful run at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, UEFA is finally getting on board with adopting video assistant refereeing.

VAR will be in use during the Champions League’s knockout stage in 2019, according to a report from the Times of London, which states that UEFA’s executive committee is expected to approve VAR for this season at an upcoming meeting on Dec. 3 in Dublin. Video review was reportedly not supposed to be approved until the 2019-2020 Champions League campaign but recent refereeing errors in the face of successful trials of VAR changed UEFA’s mind.

[READ: Ibrahimovic back to AC Milan?]

Video review at the World Cup proved that VAR could be conducted in a speedy and accurate manner, ensuring the integrity of the game while adding some new drama to the game. Raheem Sterling‘s penalty kick in Man City’s match against Shakhtar Donetsk, when video replay showed he tripped over his own feet, only renewed calls from fans and the media for video assistant referees to be used in these big-time events.

Technology has improved to the point where it is imperative that referees are given all the help they can receive. Players are moving quicker than ever, and the human eye can only watch so much. The fact that referees get nearly every decision correct is in it of itself, an impressive feat. Hopefully, with VAR coming to the Champions League and the Premier League, referees can return to getting game-changing decisions correct.