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Left alone: Alba proving perfect sidekick for Lionel Messi

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BARCELONA, Spain — With Lionel Messi wowing fans game after game, it’s easy to overlook Jordi Alba, the player who often puts him in position to score so many impressive goals.

Alba has become the indispensable sidekick for Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer.

“Leo and Jordi understand one another perfectly,” coach Ernesto Valverde said after Saturday’s 2-0 win over Celta Vigo when Alba helped set up both of Barcelona’s goals.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Alba first passed for Messi to shoot, with a rebound of a save falling to Ousmane Dembele to finish off. Alba then assisted Messi for his league-leading 15th goal of the season.

“Their relationship clicks,” Valverde said. “Sometimes rivals try to block their passing angles, but Jordi has a great sense of timing. And even though adversaries know it’s coming, it continues to work.”

Alba has been running up and down Barcelona’s left flank for seven seasons now, but his importance to his team’s attack used to be secondary to the sparkling play of former stars Neymar, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.

Neymar’s exit two summers ago marked a turning point for Alba. With the Brazil forward no longer soaking up all the weight of the attack on Barcelona’s left side, Alba was free to fully exploit his speed and passing ability.

As Alba told Spanish sports daily Sport in 2017, “now I have the entire left side to myself, and that is much better.”

Messi often starts his attacks from the right or center of the field to have his preferred left boot set to shoot. That leaves Alba in an ideal position to stretch the defense with carefully timed bursts of speed to break into the area behind the opposition’s backline, often after exchanging passes with Messi.

The 29-year-old Alba has developed the knack of knowing where Messi will dart to in the box, often behind a dummy run by Luis Suarez, where he can receive Alba’s passes in a scoring position.

“They are very quick moves against defenses that really close down the open spaces,” Alba said after Saturday’s strong performance. “But Messi always waits for the opportune moment to find space, and I connect with him.”

Alba has done his part in ensuring Barcelona went into the Spanish league’s winter break with a three-point lead atop the standings.

“Most of the passes that I give Messi end up in goal,” Alba said. “Leo never misses.”

ADIOS ATLETICO?

Second-placed Atletico Madrid heads toward the winter transfer window with big questions about two of its top young players: France defender Lucas Hernandez and midfielder Thomas Partey.

Hernandez has been linked to interest by Bayern Munich in triggering the 80 million euro ($91 million) buyout clause that would free him from his contract.

While Atletico has denied that Hernandez wants to leave, coach Diego Simeone appears to accept that he could lose the 22-year-old defender.

“Lucas knows what I told him. I love him a lot, we have watched him grow up,” Simeone said after Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Espanyol. “Let him decide what he thinks is best and I will support him.”

Thomas, who can play either as a holding midfielder or further up in the formation, has also made it publicly known that he wants to play more.

“I have a deep affection for Atletico and I am grateful for all that it has done, as well as for the fans, but sometimes I feel unhappy at Atletico,” Thomas said Saturday.

LLORENTE’S MOMENT

Ignored by previous managers, 23-year-old Marcos Llorente is playing well enough to threaten Casemiro’s spot in the starting 11 as Real Madrid’s holding midfielder.

Llorente has started nine matches since Santiago Solari took over from the fired Julen Lopetegui two months ago, benefiting from Casemiro twisting an ankle.

Llorente scored his first goal for Madrid on Saturday when he struck a powerful shot from outside the area to help beat Al Ain 4-1 in Abu Dhabi. Madrid won its third straight Club World Cup.

“Life, like football, can change just like that,” Llorente said.

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Pogba misses 2nd half penalty in Man Utd-Wolves draw

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Ruben Neves scored an amazing goal and Rui Patricio stopped a Paul Pogba penalty as Wolves took a point from Manchester United in a 1-1 match at the Molineux on Monday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ] 

United had two-thirds possession but could not find what would’ve been a deserved winner as Wolves flummoxed the Red Devils attack.

Anthony Martial scored for the second-straight match for United, who failed in a bid to go atop the Premier League.


Three things we learned

  1. Paul Pogba is to penalties as Shaquille O’Neal is to free throws – You just can’t understand how someone so good at his sport is so poor at what should be the easiest part of his game.
  2. Martial is a beauty, and is fully released from the shackles of Jose Mourinho. Whether he can take the next step is another story, but the Frenchman is a fitting winger for a Champions League club (even if United isn’t quite in the UCL).
  3. Patricio didn’t show the Premier League his very best last season, but has looked more like the Portugal national team goalkeeper so far in his sophomore PL campaign.

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men were content to let the visitors have the ball and work on the counter, and United quickly moved the ball in possession over the first stages of the game.

United took a deserved lead through Martial who ran onto a Marcus Rashford through ball and belted a rocket over a flailing Rui Patricio.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ] 

Neves brought Wolves level with a sublime bit of shooting, curling a majestic shot above and around the United back line to make it 1-1.

Watching the footage as it was being reviewed showed the margins so thin, but the goal held up and anyone hoping for some semblance of sanity was relieved.

United looked set to go back in front when Pogba drew a penalty off Conor Coady with a cutthroat move in the 18, but the Frenchman slammed his effort into the path of a diving Patricio.

WATCH: Ruben Neves spins an otherworldly ball over David De Gea

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Let us introduce you to your latest Goal of the Season contender.

Ruben Neves, who seemingly only scores beauties, struck again on Monday at the Molineux.

[ MORE: Neymar to Barca ]

The 22-year-old Portuguese playmaker loves to shoot as much as anyone, and set himself up clinically for his latest amazing marker.

Once Neves collected the ball atop the 18, he spun this magnificent effort over the flying David De Gea and off the underside of the bar to restore the deadlock in Wolverhampton.

De Gea may well have responded to this goal by quoting Ron Burgundy when Baxter ate the entire wheel of cheese.

Sensational.

AT HALF: Martial, Rashford team up for impressive opener

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Manchester United has a stylish opening goal in its quest to go a perfect 2-for-2 in Premier League play.

After quality passing in traffic ended with Marcus Rashford slipping a through ball in to both Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial, the Frenchman bolted a ball into the upper reaches of the net.

[ STREAM: Wolves – Man Utd ]

To be honest, Rui Patricio had little recourse.

The goal is Martial’s second of the season, and United is 45 minutes away from moving atop the league.

Report: Barcelona will make Neymar loan offer

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The most expensive player in the world may be going back to his old club…on loan.

According to a report by ESPNFC, Barcelona will make an official approach for Neymar on a loan with an option to buy next summer, similar to the switch Philippe Coutinho made from the Camp Nou to Bayern Munich earlier today. In fact, the report specifically states that Barcelona will look to copy Bayern’s approach of a one-year loan with a fee ($9.4 million for Coutinho’s loan) plus all wages paid, followed by an option to buy ($133 million).

Barcelona prefers this approach as they have already racked up a massive transfer bill this summer, spending over $220 million on the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Junior Firpo, and Neto.

While there have been numerous reports of potentially creative offers for Neymar over the past few weeks that mention players included in a swap deal, the ESPNFC report specifically states no players will be included in any current or future deal for Neymar either in the terms of the loan or as part of the option to buy. While Barcelona considered this approach in the past, Paris Saint-Germain was reportedly not interested in any players Barca offered, other than Coutinho. They apparently made an official offer already, ponying up $89 million plus Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic, but that was turned down.

The ESPN report does state that Coutinho’s loan to Bayern is seen by those close to Neymar as “a huge setback” as the Brazilian’s camp saw Coutinho as the key to making the deal happen, given that Barcelona is unwilling to put up a straight cash offer this summer. Unnamed Barcelona officials are also quoted in the report as stating that a for a potential Neymar deal, “it will be complicated,” but they are hopeful of progress.

The option to buy in Barcelona’s offer has reportedly not been decided upon as of yet, although previous reports have stated that PSG is unlikely to consider an offer that does not net them back what they paid for Neymar two years ago, to the tune of $245 million.