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Without Messi, Barcelona loses to Levante in Copa del Rey

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona could not overcome the absence of Lionel Messi and other regular starters on Thursday, losing 2-1 at Levante in the first leg of the Copa del Rey’s round of 16.

Barcelona’s second-stringers struggled from the start in Valencia, escaping an even greater defeat only because Levante’s forwards squandered some clear scoring chances.

[ MORE: Willian-Malcom swap? ]

The return game is next Thursday at Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona, when the four-time defending champion is expected to have some of its starters back in action after they were rested this week.

Levante took the lead early with a close-range header by Uruguayan defender Erick Cabaco in the third minute, and striker Borja Mayoral scored the second goal with a low cross shot in the 18th.

The hosts kept threatening throughout the match, taking advantage of a Barcelona defense that was without Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba. Newly signed Colombian player Jeison Murillo was making his club debut in central defense.

“We got off to a great start,” Mayoral said. “We pressed early because we knew they were not used to playing together.”

Without Messi and Luis Suarez in attack, the Catalan club had difficulties creating scoring opportunities. The trio of Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom was largely ineffective, and the team’s lone goal came late with a penalty kick converted by Coutinho in the 85th after substitute Denis Suarez got past a defender and was fouled inside the area.

“In the second leg hopefully we will take advantage of Coutinho’s goal,” Murillo said.

Barcelona routed Levante 5-0 in Valencia in a league match in December.

SEVILLA THRIVES

Sevilla, a Copa finalist in two of the last three seasons, cruised to a 3-1 away win over Athletic Bilbao with goals by Manuel “Nolito” Agudo, Andre Silva and Wissam Ben Yedder.

Mikel San Jose scored for Athletic, which is fighting against relegation in the Spanish league.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines ]

The teams face each other again in the league on Sunday. Their second-leg match in the Copa is next week in Seville.

Also Thursday, Real Betis was held by visiting Real Sociedad to a 0-0 draw.

On Wednesday, Real Madrid defeated Leganes 3-0 at home, while Atletico Madrid drew 1-1 at Girona.

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Cardiff “very distressed,” “praying for positive news” regarding Sala

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Cardiff City executive director Ken Choo has released a statement on the missing flight from France to Wales which carried new signing Emiliano Sala.

Crews in Wales continue to search for the plane, which disappeared from radar late Monday night.

Fans have flocked to Cardiff City Stadium and Nantes town square to lay flowers in hopes of a miraculous recovery for Sala and his pilot.

From Cardiff City’s official site:

“We were very shocked upon hearing the news that the plane had gone missing. We expected Emiliano to arrive last night into Cardiff and today was due to be his first day with the team.

“Our owner, Tan Sri Vincent Tan, and chairman, Mehmet Dalman, are all very distressed about the situation.

“We made the decision first thing this morning to call off training with the thoughts of the squad, management staff and the entire Club with Emiliano and the pilot.

“All of us at Cardiff City FC would like to thank our fans, and the entire footballing family for their support at this difficult time.

“We continue to pray for positive news.”

Ronaldo pleads guilty to tax fraud at Madrid court

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MADRID (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo has pleaded guilty to tax fraud and received a two-year suspended sentence.

The Juventus forward, who was facing charges stemming from his days at Real Madrid, was in court for about 45 minutes and signed an agreement which will cost him nearly 19 million euros ($21.6 million) in fines.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

Ronaldo arrived at court in a black van and was wearing a black sports coat and black pants. He walked up some stairs leading to the court house and even stopped to sign an autograph.

Ronaldo made the deal to plead guilty with Spain’s state prosecutor and tax authorities last year.

In Spain, a judge can suspend sentences for two years or less for first-time offenders.

In 2017, a state prosecutor accused Ronaldo of four counts of tax fraud from 2011-14 worth 14.7 million euros ($16.7 million). Ronaldo was accused of having used shell companies outside Spain to hide income made from image rights.

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

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Transfer rumor roundup: Man Utd wants Bergwijn; Bournemouth after $16m CB

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Manchester United is hoping to beat a host of teams to $32 million PSV Eindhoven attacker Steven Bergwijn.

The 21-year-old has 10 goals and nine assists this season after breaking out with nine and 11 last season.

[ MORE: Latest on Emiliano Sala ]

Bergwijn plays across the top of attack as a center forward or wing. He has a goal or an assist in 13 of his last 14 Eredivisie matches.

Inter Milan, West Ham United, and Tottenham Hotspur are among the other clubs linked with Bergwijn.

Bournemouth have reportedly seen a near $16 million bid for Brentford defender Chris Mepham, a Welsh international viewed as a piece to help fill the void caused by Simon Francis‘ long-term injury.

Mepham, 21, was with Chelsea’s academy before moving to Brentford. Standing 6-foot-3, he has 48 appearances with a goal for the Bees.

Rafa Benitez and Newcastle continue to seek reinforcements in the market, with The Daily Mail reporting that the Magpies are nearing a breakthrough at left back in the form of Milad Mohammadi.

The 25-year-old Iranian plays for Russian side Akhmat Grozny, and is currently on international duty with Iran at the Asian Cup. He’s one of the mid-table side’s top performing players this season.

The Magpies have also joined West Ham in tracking Josh Maja, the Sunderland striker who is out-of-contract this summer. Maja, 20, has 15 goals in 24 League One matches this season.

Cardiff record signing Sala aboard missing flight

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Cardiff City record signing Emiliano Sala was on a flight that disappeared en route to Wales, Sky Sports is reporting.

The plane disappeared from radar Monday night, and authorities suspended the search because of treacherous conditions before resuming Tuesday morning with “five aircrafts and two lifeboats.”

Here’s Cardiff chairman Mehmet Dalman:

“We are very concerned by the latest news that a light aircraft lost contact over the Channel last night. We are awaiting confirmation before we can say anything further. We are very concerned for the safety of Emiliano Sala.”

Sala signed a three-and-a-half year deal with Cardiff just three days ago on what was announced a club record purchase from Nantes in Ligue 1.

The Argentine forward, 28, has scored 12 goals in each of his last three seasons at Nantes, the latest dozen coming in 16 matches before his sale to Cardiff.

Cardiff City canceled morning training, while Nantes has postponed its French Cup match. Chairman Waldermar Kita said that Sala is “loved by everyone.”

“He absolutely wanted to say goodbye to his friends, which is normal,” said Kita. “This is a nice boy, polite and loved by everyone, he is very respectful and courteous, I think of his family, and I hope he is somewhere. I am still hoping that it is not finished.”