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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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USWNT’s 28-game run snapped in hammering by France

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Kadidiatou Diani scored twice and France ended the U.S. national team’s 28-game unbeaten streak with a 3-1 victory Saturday in Le Havre, France.

The top-ranked United States had not lost since falling 1-0 to Australia in 2017, The Americans were 25-0-3 over the span.

Marie-Antoinette Katoto also scored for third-ranked France. It has won eight straight matches.

It was the first of 10 matches the United States will play before the World Cup. The Americans are the defending champions and could meet France again in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

France went up in the ninth minute on Diani’s goal off a cross from Delphine Cascarino. Diani scored again in the 57th minute to make it 2-0. The 23-year old plays for Paris Saint-Germain.

Katoto, Diani’s PSG teammate, added a goal in the 78th minute.

Mallory Pugh scored for the United States in the final moments.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis had to tinker with her starting lineup and rested stars Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Julie Ertz as a precaution because of minor injuries. Also held out was Kelley O’Hara, still recovering from ankle surgery.

Defender Tierna Davidson came in for Emily Fox in the 53rd minute, marking her first appearance since she fractured her left ankle in a match for Stanford in September.

Davidson decided to leave the Cardinal with a year of eligibility remaining to focus on making the World Cup team. She was the first overall pick in last week’s National Women’s Soccer League draft by the Chicago Red Stars.

The match at La Stade Oceane was sold out with over 25,000 in attendance. The stadium is one of the nine venues that will host World Cup games. The Americans’ next visit to the stadium will be for the final match of the World Cup group stage against Sweden.

“I’m not worried,” Ellis said following the loss. “We know who we are and what we can do.”

Next up for the United States is a match against Spain on Tuesday at Estadio Joss Rico Perez in Alicante. The U.S. women trained in Portugal ahead of the two-match European trip.

Serie A: Roma climb into 4th; anti-racism showing at Inter

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

[ MORE: What we learned in the Premier League, Week 23 ]

Roma 3-2 Torino

Nicolo Zaniolo announced himself as one of Europe’s most promising young talents, with the opening goal in Roma’s 3-2 victory over Torino, a game in which the 19-year-old was the best, most dangerous attacker for the whole of 90 minutes.

Zaniolo was initially denied by Salvatore Sirigu, but the young Italian managed to collect the rebound and put it home on the rebound, all while on the ground. Aleksandar Kolarov made it 2-0 not long after the half-hour mark, and Roma appeared to be on their merry way to a third straight victory.

The score was 2-2 by the 67th minute, thanks to Tomas Rincon and Cristian Asnaldo. Stephan El Shaarawy had other ideas, though, as he slammed home the winner, courtesy of a perfect through ball from Lorenzo Pellegrini, in the 73rd.

Now fully recovered from a disastrous start to the season (just five wins from their first 15 games), Roma sit fourth in the table, a point ahead of capital rivals Lazio.

Inter Milan 0-0 Sassuolo

Elsewhere in the top-four, third-place Inter Milan were held to a scoreless draw by 12th-place Sassuolo, but the game’s real story took place in the stands.

With Inter serving the second of its two-game ban on fans being allowed inside the San Siro due to racist chants, more than 10,000 local children were invited to attend as part of an initiative against discrimination. Brothers Universally United hung anti-discrimination signs around the stadium and the players word “BUU No to discrimination” on their shirt sleeves.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Udinese 1-2 Parma

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Frosinone v. Atalanta — 6:30 a.m. ET
Fiorentina v. Sampdoria — 9 a.m. ET
SPAL v. Bologna — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari v. Empoli — 12 p.m. ET
Napoli v. Lazio — 2:30 p.m. ET

La Liga: Atleti cut into Barcelona’s lead; Real Madrid move into 3rd

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: What we learned in the Premier League, Week 23 ]

Huesca 0-3 Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid cut Barcelona’s lead in the title race to two points with a resounding victory away to 20th-place Huesca. Barcelona will host 15th-place Leganes on Sunday.

Lucas Hernandez opened the scoring in the 31st minute, and while his finish inside a heavy fog would ultimately be enough for Diego Simeone’s side, Santiago Arias (52nd) and Koke (71st) tacked on insurance goals in the second half.

Real Madrid 2-0 Sevilla

In a battle of two sides level on points in a battle for third place, Real Madrid turned in one of their better performances on the season en route to a 2-0 victory over Sevilla.

Sure, Los Blancos didn’t break the scoreless deadlock until Casemiro unleashed his long-range blast in the 78th minute — thus the result was in doubt for much of the game — but Madrid were in complete control despite the goal coming late on. Sevilla managed just four shots over 90 minutes and held just 31 percent of possession.

Even still, the score remained tight at 1-0 until stoppage time, when Luka Modric 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric put the game to bed.

Now in sole possession of third place — three points clear of Sevilla, but still seven back of Barcelona — Santiago Solari’s side appears to have righted the ship enough that they’ll cruise to a top-four finish.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Celta Vigo 1-2 Valencia

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Real Betis v. Girona — 6 a.m. ET
Villarreal v. Athletic Bilbao — 10:15 a.m. ET
Rayo Vallecano v. Real Sociedad — 12:30 p.m. ET
Levante v. Real Valladolid — 12:30 p.m. ET
Barcelona v. Leganes — 2:45 p.m. ET

USMNT youngster joins NYCFC on loan from Benfica

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NEW YORK (AP) U.S. national player Keaton Parks has been acquired by New York City FC on loan from the Portuguese club Benfica for the 2019 season.

The 21-year-old Texan is a versatile central midfielder. He joined Varzim of Portugal in 2015 when he turned 18 and then signed with Benfica in 2017.

He made his national team debut in May, entering in the 62nd minute of a 3-0 victory over Bolivia in Philadelphia.

New York sporting director Claudio Reyna said Saturday that Parks “comes to us highly motivated” and can “make a strong impact” in midfield.