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Setien rekindles Barcelona’s passing style in first game

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BARCELONA, Spain — Coach Quique Setién only needed one match to leave his mark on Barcelona.

Barcelona set season highs for ball possession and passes in a 1-0 win over Granada on Sunday, Setién’s first match since replacing Ernesto Valverde six days earlier.

The defending champion’s level of 82% ball possession came close to reaching the all-time Spanish league record of 84% established by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, according to the club. The team’s 1,005 attempted passes smashed its previous season high of 788 passes against Real Betis.

One thing, however, remained the same after the coaching switch: Barcelona turned to Lionel Messi to find the winning goal. The club’s all-time leading scorer scored in the 76th minute after Granada had lost a defender for picking up a second yellow card for fouling Messi.

“You feel much better having Messi because he has been deciding these types of matches for more than a decade,” Setién said.

Setién, a former Atlético Madrid player and coach of several Spanish clubs, is a declared admirer of Barcelona’s passing style established by late Johan Cruyff.

The 61-year-old Spaniard divided fans at his previous two jobs with Las Palmas and Real Betis. He started well at both with supporters enjoying his insistence on imitating Barcelona’s style. But many fans then grew tired of seeing his teams dominate the ball while scoring few goals and proving brittle on defense.

Now with Messi and his talented teammates under his command, Setién’s has passed the first test at Camp Nou. His new side only conceded one shot on goal that, fortunately for Setién, hit the post minutes before Messi decided the game.

Setién did not touch Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation or make any big changes in his first starting 11 compared to Valverde. Ansu Fati, the teenager who was discovered by Valverde, started for the injured Luis Suárez. Arturo Vidal, a key player for Valverde, took the place of the suspended Frenkie de Jong. Despite his reputation of not being a great passer, Vidal set up Messi’s goal with back-heel pass.

Setién insisted on the importance of his players pressing quickly to recover the ball after losing it. They responded and worked several incredibly long possessions, especially in the first half, that ended in attractive chances in the box.

“The fact that we made so many passes? The only thing I need is to have control,” he said. “We we had talked about being brave and going forward to recover the ball in their territory and that helped us to created danger after recovering the ball.”

Setién’s second-half substitution of Riqui Puig for Ivan Rakitic definitely bore his seal.

The 20-year-old Puig had earned his debut in 2018 from Valverde, but at the start of this season Valverde sent him back to the reserve team. Setién’s first move was to call Puig back up to train with the first squad.

Puig proved key to the victory when he stole the ball near Granada’s area. That led to the attack finished by Messi.

“(Puig) was very good,” Setién said. “He showed patience and he read the match well.”

TWO-TEAM RACE?

While Barcelona and Real Madrid won, most of their potential challengers lost ground just past the midpoint of the season.

Fourth-place Sevilla fell 2-1 at Madrid; sixth-place Real Sociedad lost 3-0 at Real Betis; Valencia fell into seventh place after being shocked 4-1 at lowly Mallorca this round.

Atlético Madrid, which finished the past two seasons as runners-up to champion Barcelona, had one of its poorest performances of the campaign in a 2-0 loss at Eibar. The defeat came following a loss in the Spanish Super Cup final in a penalty shootout to Madrid. Before the pair of losses, it had won three in a row in the league and had beaten Barcelona in the Super Cup semifinals- Valverde’s last match.

The defeat at Eibar left it eight points adrift in third place behind Barcelona and Madrid. Barcelona leads Madrid on goal difference.

ESPANYOL’S HOPE

Last-place Espanyol’s chances of staying in the topflight have been revived by a new coach and a new striker.

Espanyol has taken four points from the two league matches manager with Abelardo Fernández in charge. It drew with Barcelona 2-2 two weeks ago and won 2-1 at Villarreal on Sunday for its first win since Oct. 27.

Shopping for a scorer in the winter transfer market, Espanyol reportedly paid Benfica a club-record 20 million euros ($22 million) for Raúl de Tomás, who had joined Benfica during the summer.

De Tomás has made an immediate impact, scoring in his debut against a third-tier team in the Copa del Rey before taking the winner at Villarreal.

“We have been working on boosting our morale for the past two weeks, on recovering our self-confidence,” Abelardo said. “My players hadn’t forgotten how to play, as they showed (Sunday). You have to live the present instead of thinking about what can happen in two or three weeks. You have to play each match like a final.”

CCL wrap: Atlanta United, Cruz Azul advance

CONCACAF Champions League
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The underdogs did not have their days on Tuesday in the CONCACAF Champions League.

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MLS side Atlanta United and Liga MX mainstays Cruz Azul cruised to second legs win at home to clinch places in the quarterfinals.

Cruz Azul 4-0 (6-1 agg.) Portmore United

Bringing a pair of away goals from Jamaica, the Liga MX hosts just needed to put this one on ice early.

Orbelin Pineda did that in the 22nd minute, and Cruz Azul struck thrice in the second half to win in a landslide.

Atlanta United 3-0 (4-1 agg.) Montagua

It was all about the Martinezes in Georgia, as Pity sandwiched a pair of goals around Josef’s 61st minute tally to send the Five Stripes into the next stage.

All the goals showed calm under pressure, but Pity’s first was gorgeous football. He also assisted Josef’s goal in Honduras during the first leg.

Remaining Round of 16 second legs

NYCFC v. San Carlos (5-3) — 6 p.m. Wednesday
Montreal Impact v. Deportivo Saprissa (2-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tigres UANL v. Alianza (1-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Club America v. Comunicaciones (1-1) — 10 p.m. Wednesday
Seattle Sounders v. Olimpia (2-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday
LAFC v Leon (0-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday

Coronavirus: Italy may lift ban on sporting events by Monday

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MILAN (AP) The Italian government could lift its ban on sporting events by Monday in areas affected by the coronavirus if the number of cases stabilizes.

The outbreak forced a number of sporting events to be called off throughout the country this past weekend, including four Serie A matches in the north of Italy.

This week, the ban on sporting events was extended from Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont – the areas hardest hit by the outbreak – to also include the regions of Friuli Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna and Liguria, until March 1.

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“If, as I hope, the statistics don’t give us different signs then maybe already by Monday these measures won’t be continued,” Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “But it’s only Tuesday today and we have to wait and see what happens over the next few days. The health of the Italian citizens is the most important thing.”

Italy reported a 45% increase in the number of coronavirus cases Tuesday, from 222 to 300. Ten people have died, all of them elderly or suffering from other ailments.

“Obviously, I can’t say I’m not worried because I don’t want anyone to think we’re underestimating this emergency,” Premier Giuseppe Conte said before meeting with visiting World Health Organization representatives. “But we trust that with the measures we have implemented, there will be a containing effect in the coming days.”

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two regions where clusters have formed and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

Serie A matches this weekend are set to be played behind closed doors, including Juventus’ key match against Inter Milan. That game is not only potentially crucial to the title race but also sees the return of former Juventus coach Antonio Conte.

Inter’s Europa League match at home to Ludogorets on Thursday will also take place without any fans allowed in.

Serie C canceled all games in two leagues which have teams in the north. Volleyball and rugby games were also suspended nationwide through next weekend.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation suspended all of its events throughout the country for an entire week, although it said that “for now” next weekend’s World Cup ski races in La Thuile in the Valle d’Aosta region were still set to go ahead. Those races are operated by the International Ski Federation, which has already canceled races this season in China that were slated to test the course for the 2022 Beijing Games.

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

El Tri winger Jurgen Damm headed for MLS this summer

Jurgen Damm
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This season’s Liga MX invasion of MLS continues with Jurgen Damm announcing that he’ll leave UANL Tigres this summer after five years with the club.

TUDN has the destination as Atlanta, though previous reports have linked Damm to the LA Galaxy is the spot.

And MLSSoccer.com scribe Tom Bogert says the Houston Dynamo have his “discovery rights” (which remains the worst concept in the entire league).

Reports emerged over the past 48 hours that the El Tri man was headed for an MLS club.

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The 12-times capped winger has one goal for Mexico, but has not been capped since Oct. 2018. He has spent his entire career in Liga MX.

Damm spent the early part of his career with Tecos and Pachuca, but has been with UANL Tigres since 2015.

He won four league titles with UANL, as well as the 2018 Campeones Cup.

Ex-Arsenal man Gnabry: “London’s still red” after Bayern beats Chelsea

Serge Gnabry
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Ex-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry still has love for the club.

Gnabry tweeted that “London is still red” after he scored twice for Bayern Munich in a 3-0 beating of Chelsea on Tuesday in the first leg of a UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

This after scoring four times against Spurs in a previous Champions League group stage match and Tweeting that “North London is Red.”

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So what’s with the London form?

“I’ve got a lot of friends here,” Gnabry said after the game. “A lot of them were in the stands tonight, and it seems they give me a lot of good power.”

Gnabry only scored once during his time in England with Arsenal and West Brom but is a bona fide star in the Bundesliga.

With a three-goal advantage over Chelsea heading to Munich for a second leg, however, he’s not got his head in the clouds.

“Three goals ahead gives us a little bit of confidence, but we need to be prepared for the second leg. We can’t take it not seriously enough. … We’ve seen it last year with Liverpool beating Barcelona, so we have to be careful. We have to go into the second leg with all of our focus.”

Gnabry now has 51 goals and 29 assists in four seasons since returning to Germany from Arsenal. Not terrible production for a player the Gunners offloaded to Werder Bremen for under $6 million in 2016.

What color will London be when Chelsea buys him next year? We kid, we kid…