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Barcelona’s Setien under pressure after three games in charge

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BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona hired Quique Setien to improve a team that was already leading the Spanish league.

Two weeks later, the defending champions are trailing Real Madrid and clearly struggling to adapt to the on-the-fly coaching change.

The team has boosted its possession of the ball and its number of passes, tenants of the orthodox Barcelona style professed by Setien that had waned in recent seasons. But that has yet to make it firmer on defense or lead to more goals compared to its performances under predecessor Ernesto Valverde.

Barcelona needed a goal by Lionel Messi to get past Granada 1-0 in Setien’s debut on Jan. 19. A double by Antoine Griezmann, including a second goal in stoppage time, saved them against third-tier side Ibiza in the Copa del Rey with a 2-1 win on Wednesday.

But on Saturday Barcelona was completely outplayed at Valencia, which was content to let Barcelona have the ball and then wait to pounce on the break. Valencia won 2-0 despite also missing a penalty and hitting the post. Madrid’s 1-0 win at Valladolid on Sunday let it move three points ahead and take charge of the title race.

Setien acknowledged that his team has yet to play like he wants.

“We are evaluating the position of our players and the understanding we need to have to do what we propose,” Setien said after Saturday’s loss. “One thing is that (the players) understand it on the chalkboard and quite another is how we put it into practice.”

Setien’s three-man backline, a change from Valverde’s four defenders, left the team’s flanks exposed against Valencia. Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba, playing as wing backs, were unable to effectively join the attack. And, most disconcertingly for Setien, the midfield of Sergio Buquests, Frenkie de Jong, and Arthur failed to set up Messi and Griezmann in scoring positions.

Barcelona only got going once it was trailing in the score and after Arturo Vidal had replaced Arthur. Vidal set up Messi’s goal against Granada and was his best partner in attack again at Valencia.

“There are things that (my players) didn’t interpret correctly,” Setien said. “That, or we didn’t explain them well. We made passes that didn’t help advance the team. There are things we need to work on to correct.”

Setien will need to work out the kinks in his team before Barcelona visits Napoli in the opening leg of their Champions League round-of-16 leg on Feb. 25.

Next up is Leganes in the Copa del Rey round-of-16 on Thursday.

SIMEONE’S SLUMP

Atletico Madrid is in a slump and its road forward is only going to get more difficult.

Diego Simeone’s side will take a four-game winless streak across all competitions to crosstown rival Real Madrid next weekend.

Madrid bettered Atletico on Jan. 12 in a penalty shootout to win the Spanish Super Cup. That loss started a wretched run for Atletico that has included a 2-0 loss at Eibar, a humiliating exit from the Copa del Rey to a third-tier team, and Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home with lowly Leganes.

“The results are not good, but we have never stopped trying nor fighting for the good times to return,” goalkeeper Jan Oblak said. “We hope to build the run of wins that we all need.”

While Oblak is keeping the team in matches by anchoring a strong defense, the team’s attack is sputtering. With 22 goals in 21 league matches, only five teams in the 20-team division have scored fewer. Barcelona, the leading scorer, has 50 goals.

The pressure will be on former Madrid player Alvaro Morata to lead an attack with Angel Correa and youngster Joao Felix, who has yet to meet expectations following his 120 million euros ($133 million) transfer from Benifca.

A win at the Santiago Bernabeu would do wonders to silence Atletico’s critics. A loss would realistically leave the team with only the Champions League to play for. It faces defending champion Liverpool in the round-of-16 next month.

Fernandes scores first goal, says Ronaldo backed Manchester United move

Bruno Fernandes Ronaldo
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It’s probably not a surprise that a young Portuguese player would fancy Manchester United given the heroics of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford early his career.

Bruno Fernandes admits that those images danced through his head well before he signed with the Red Devils in January.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

It’s also not a shock that United would turn to their former player for a take on the playmaker before buying him from Sporting Lisbon.

Fernandes says he’s grateful that CR7 endorsed BF18. From Sky Sports:

“I know some people asked Cristiano what he thought of me and what I was like as a player and a person,” Fernandes said. “I know he spoke highly of me and gave me a good reference, so I sent him a message after to thank him for his kind words.”

Fernandes has 19 caps and two goals for Portugal, while Ronaldo has a few more with 164 and 99.

He now has a goal and an assist in four appearances for United. Ronaldo finished with 118 goals and 69 assists in 292 appearances for the Red Devils.

Here’s the finish:

Eden Hazard suffers fracture ahead of Man City in UCL, El Clasico

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Eden Hazard is set to miss the Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League first leg against Man City with a broken fibula.

Hazard had only returned to the lineup for two matches following a three-month absence with an ankle injury.

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The 29-year-old has made just 15 appearances for Real since arriving in a big-money move from Chelsea, scoring once with five assists.

He has never appeared in less than 30 league matches over the course of his career, five times missing one or zero matches.

Of course, all of his absences show that Real is very comfortable playing and winning without Hazard. Zinedine Zidane’s men lost Sunday to drop behind Barcelona in La Liga, but that was just its second loss of the league season.

Real will be taxed in depth like its rivals, with Wednesday’s visit from Man City followed by an El Clasico at the Bernabeu on March 1. Barcelona hosts Napoli on Tuesday.

Whether you like the playmaker or despise him, there must be some sense of sympathy for his latest ailments (even if Man City and Barca fans will likely offer a Jerry Seinfeld-esque, “That’s a shame”).

Watch Live: Manchester United, Wolves host bottom three battlers

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A pair of Premier League basement dwellers face stiff tests in their bids to win another season in the top flight.

Manchester United hosts Watford on NBCSN while Wolves welcome Norwich City on CNBC as both home sides aim to improve the health of their top four hopes in 9 a.m. ET kickoffs.

[ WATCH: Man Utd-Watford | Wolves-Norwich ]

Lineups notes from both matches:

LINEUPS

Manchester United

Watford


Wolves

Norwich City

Three Serie A matches suspended due to virus deaths in Italy

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ROME (AP) Three Serie A soccer matches scheduled for Sunday in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto were suspended late Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the virus from China.

On orders from the Italian government, the games called off were: Inter Milan vs. Sampdoria, Atalanta vs. Sassuolo and Hellas Verona vs. Cagliari.

Three other matches in Genoa, Turin and Rome on Sunday are going ahead as scheduled.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown on Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the coronavirus from China, and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.

“The government is working on urgent measures to decisively confront and contain the cases of coronavirus contagion,” read a letter from Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora to Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago shortly before midnight local time on Saturday. “Those measures also include the sports world in order to prevent risks and to better take care of the health of those involved in the events and competition.

“Following measures taken by the cabinet for protective reasons and maximum precaution, on orders of the government I’m asking you to suspend all sports events of every level and discipline planned for the Lombardy and Veneto regions on Sunday.”

The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses.

The mayor of Milan, Italy’s business capital and the regional capital of Lombardy, shuttered public offices.

A 78-year-old man infected with the virus died in Veneto. A postmortem on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy came back positive, though it wasn’t clear if illness from the virus caused her death.

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

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf