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Barcelona two results from first unbeaten La Liga season

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Barcelona moved to within two matches of an unbeaten league season with a 5-1 blasting of Villarreal at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.

Barca, who drew Real Madrid at the weekend, finishes at Levante and home to Real Sociedad. They have 27 wins and nine draws, and lead second place Atletico Madrid by 15 points.

[ RECAP: Chelsea 1-1 Huddersfield ]

No La Liga team has gone unbeaten in a season lasting longer than 18 matches.

Ousmane Dembele scored twice, while Lionel Messi, Philippe Coutinho, and Paulinho also scored in the blowout.

Messi’s goal was one of our last chances to see the Andres Iniesta to Messi connection in action.

Dembele now has three goals and five assists in his last 10 matches after a dreadful start to life in La Liga.

And he’s showing exactly why Barca was willing to pay big to pry him from Borussia Dortmund in the summer.

Five things learned from internationals

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With a plethora of international friendlies taking place across globe on Friday, we learned plenty about where the teams heading to the 2018 World Cup are it in their preparation for the big dance in Russia this summer.

[ MORE: International wrap

In case you weren’t scouring the globe at obscene hours to stay in touch with all the action, we were.

Here’s what we learned.


South American teams in fine fettle

CONMEBOL went five for five on Friday with wins for Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Colombia. There is no doubt that South America will once again dominate at the World Cup this summer. Brazil dealt easily with Russia without Neymar as Miranda, Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho scored in the second half as they continue their fine run. Argentina didn’t start Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero against Italy at the Etihad Stadium but ran out 2-0 winners with goals from Maneul Lanzini (his first for his nation) and Ever Banega getting the job done. Plenty of starters were rested at the 2014 runners up look incredibly strong. Plus, they don’t have to worry about losing out to Chile like they have in the last two Copa America tournaments.

Uruguay’s stars shone against the Czech Republic with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani on target in China, while Colombia’s fine comeback in France stole the show. Trailing 2-0 with 26 minutes gone, Colombia scored two late goals via Radamel Falcao and Juan Quintero to grab the victory in Paris. A fit Falcao will make a huge difference to Los Cafeteros’ chances of getting past the last eight this time out. Peru, who will be at their first World Cup since 1982 this summer, completed a fine showing for the five CONMEBOL teams who qualified the World Cup this summer as they beat Croatia 2-0. For those who are still shocked that Chile won’t be going to the World Cup this summer, these results prove just how strong South America has become.


England mature in 3-4-3 formation

Okay, the 1-0 win in Amsterdam was against a very poor Netherlands outfit who are in transition, haven’t qualified for the last two major tournaments and Ronald Koeman has a massive rebuilding job on his hands. But still, England were extremely impressive. The way Gareth Southgate‘s men moved the ball around in a 3-4-3 formation proved they are developing well and Kyle Walker as a right-sided center back was a revelation. Without the injured Harry Kane, the Three Lions did lack a bit of cutting edge up front but Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were so dangerous on the break and the main takeaway was the balance of this team and the composure on the ball of the defenders. Jesse Lingard (who scored his first international goal), John Stones, Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford all staked their claims for a starting spot this summer as England are unbeaten in seven games and haven’t conceded in their last five, including the last three against Germany, Brazil and Holland. Whisper it: England could be the darkhorses this summer.


Germany, Spain the real deals

The class of these two teams suggests that they will go far this summer. The reigning World Cup champs equalized through Thomas Muller’s stunning goal after Rodrigo popped up (after Andres Iniesta’s perfect pass) to put Spain ahead early on in a high tempo, high quality encounter. This is just the kind of tune-up both teams needed as Joachim Low and Julen Lopetegui have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. Both teams were close to full strength and this underlined their status as favorites to win the World Cup this summer. Germany haven’t lost in their last 22 games, while Spain hasn’t lost in 17 as the past two World Cup champs have not only got veterans in fine form but are also bringing through the next wave of talent. Also, Germany have Manuel Neuer to return from injury, while Spain will rely on Diego Costa getting back to his best to spearhead their attack this summer. Still, this was a hugely impressive display from both teams as Spain host Argentina in Madrid next week and Germany play Brazil in Berlin. Those four teams are surely the current favorites to win it all.


Ronaldo remains red-hot as Egypt impress

23 goals in his last 12 games for club and country. 23. Cristiano Ronaldo is in fine form after a slow start to the season where many questioned if he had turned the corner and had entered the final stretch of his legendary career. Not so fast. Portugal’s man main throughout his career, Ronaldo, now 33, popped up twice in stoppage time in Zurich, Switzerland to seal a comeback 2-1 win against an impressive Egypt side. Mohamed Salah (of course) got Egypt’s goal as the Pharaohs look forward to their first World Cup since 1990 and are set to be the darlings of the tournament this summer. Yet Ronaldo spoiled their party on Friday as he scored two bullet headers for the reigning European champs, with the winner looked at by VAR but correctly allowed. Will Ronaldo retire after the World Cup this summer? Portugal will hope he can go on for at least another four years and at this rate he will continue to deliver up until, and during, the 2022 World Cup.


Mexico ticking over nicely

El Tri beat Iceland 3-0 on Friday as an experimental side proved just how strong they are with Juan Carlos Osorio making plenty of changes as Mexico strolled to victory in front of 68,917 fans in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Marco Fabian struck a beautiful free kick in the first half and Miguel Layun added two goals after the break to beat Iceland, with The Vikings heading to its first-ever World Cup this summer as the smallest nation to ever quality. For Mexico, they will be hoping to continue their development under Osorio as the oft-maligned coach has won 30 of his 45 games in charge since taking over in 2015. Not bad, Juan Carlos. El Tri had Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano, Hector Herrera and Carlos Vela all on the bench as they will all likely play against Croatia on Tuesday in Texas. For Mexico, their World Cup opener against Germany is their toughest game of the group stage but Osorio must be pleased with the options at his disposal and the performance of goalkeeper Jesus Corona to keep out Iceland, who did create chances with direct play, was impressive. Mexico is humming along nicely as it heads to the World Cup aiming to make the knockout rounds once again.

Int’l friendlies: Lingard guides England; Colombia tops France

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A roundup of Friday’s international friendlies….

England suffered an early setback in Holland after Joe Gomez limped off the pitch with an injury. However, the Three Lions bounced back with a 1-0 victory when Jesse Lingard struck after halftime.

[ MORE: USMNT reveals new kits ahead of Paraguay friendly ]

A drastic second-half turnaround for Colombia gave the South American side a 3-2 victory over France. Olivier Giroud and Thomas Lemar had Les Bleus out in front in the first half with a 2-0 lead, but the Colombians responded with three unanswered finishes to grab the win.

Mohamed Salah‘s second-half strike wasn’t enough to pace Egypt due to Cristiano Ronaldo’s late brace for Portugal (his 80th and 81st international goals), while Victor Moses‘ penalty kick helped Nigeria top Poland.

Meanwhile, Brazil picked up a convincing 3-0 win over this summer’s hosts Russia. Barcelona teammates Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho each scored in the second half, after Miranda opened the scoring for the Selecao.

Germany and Spain settled for an exciting 1-1 draw, while Argentina topped Italy, 2-0, without Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero in the lineup.

Below are all the scores from today’s friendlies involving teams that will play in Russia this summer.

Portugal 2-1 Egypt
Argentina 2-0 Italy
Germany 1-1 Spain
Netherlands 0-1 England
Poland 0-1 Nigeria
Scotland 0-1 Costa Rica
France 2-3 Colombia
Uruguay 2-0 Czech Republic
Japan 1-1 Mali
Russia 0-3 Brazil
Saudi Arabia 1-1 Ukraine
Greece 0-1 Switzerland
Tunisia 1-0 Iran
Serbia 1-2 Morocco
Peru vs. Croatia — 8:30 p.m. ET
Mexico vs. Iceland — 10 p.m. ET

Conte gets tactics spot on but Messi has last laugh

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LONDON — Before the game Antonio Conte‘s tactics were the talk of the press room at Stamford Bridge, plus pubs and television studios around the world.

After the game his decision to play Eden Hazard in a false nine position, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and leave out his two star center forwards, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, was lauded. This was a reminder of the man who led Chelsea to Premier League glory last season and also a reminder of Chelsea’s successful past against the Catalan giants as they’re now unbeaten in their last eight UCL encounters as the clash of styles continues.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Recap

Conte is under pressure with just five wins in his last 13 games in all competitions, but this was a tactical masterclass from the Italian coach as his side totally bought into his plan and without a mistake from Andreas Christensen late on, it would have been an archetypal Italian defensive display leading to a 1-0 win to take to the Nou Camp.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Conte believed his players were incredibly unlucky to not win the game as Willian struck the post twice in the first half and they threatened multiple times on the counter.

“We were very close to playing the perfect game. One mistake and we know very well when you make a mistake against Barcelona and players like Messi, Suarez and Iniesta you pay. It is a pity because tonight, at the end of the game, we are disappointed for the final result,” Conte said. “We hit the post twice with Willian. There is a bit of disappointment but I think that this game must give us confidence to trust that in the second leg that qualification is open. It won’t be easy. We must be realistic. We are talking about Barcelona. Tonight we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, but at the same time you continue to have the right feeling when you win the ball to create chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at the Nou Camp.”

The one wrench in Conte’s plan was always going to be one incredible player: Lionel Messi.

Without a goal in eight games (730 minutes in total) against Chelsea, the five-time World Player of the Year stroked home a killer away goal 15 minutes from time to swing the tie back into Barcelona’s favor after Conte’s masterclass. Messi, 30, once again arrived at the pivotal moment for the La Liga leaders and the Argentine star sprung into life as Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta made the most of Christensen’s mistake.

Messi’s presence on the ball sparked nervousness within the Chelsea defense but it looked like he would leave empty hand once again until he was gifted a chance to silence the doubters.

Barcelona had 73 percent of possession on Tuesday and attempted 887 passes to Chelsea’s 325. They looked comfortable in a cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge and even though they were vulnerable on the counter, they never looked too flustered but only had two real chances via Paulinho in the first half and Suarez in the second.

Despite following the blueprint to get a result against Barcelona almost to a tee, Cesc Fabregas believes the Blues will have to be more expansive at the Nou Camp in the second leg to get through to the quarterfinals.

“We have showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through,” Fabregas told BT Sport. “You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70 percent of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

As for Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde, he admitted that he was a happy man to escape West London with a draw but urged his side to respect Chelsea’s style of play in the second leg.

“It has been a clash of styles this game, two different teams,” Ernesto said. “We tried to control the game, had a lot of possession and got close to the area. We were just lacking a little bit of extra quality in the final third. They defended very well. The good thing is we managed to get an error and get a goal out of them. We will go back to the Camp Nou happy.”

Conte was happy his players followed his gameplan and believes they must believe they can deliver killers blows on the break in Barcelona in two weeks time with Willian, Pedro and Hazard key to the plan.

“I must be pleased because the players did a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared,” Conte said. “In 15 days we must be ready to prepare for another game against Barcelona. We must be prepared to suffer together but in the moment you are suffering, you must know that the moment you are in possession you can create a chance to score.”

Chelsea need at least one goal to go through or to take the game to extra time, but given their spirited display at Stamford Bridge there’s renewed hope that Conte can mastermind another defensive masterplan to get them into the last eight for the first time since 2014.

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Messi makes impact

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Nas only needs one mic. Barca only requires one chance.

Lionel Messi scored on Chelsea’s lone mistake of the night, as Barcelona came back to score a potentially vital away goal in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 meeting with the Blues on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

Willian scored Chelsea’s opener after hitting both posts in a Man of the Match performance.

The second leg is March 14.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Chelsea played without a true “No. 9,” keeping Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud on the bench to start.

Both teams had chances in the first 15 minutes, with Jordi Alba having plenty of work on Barca’s left side and Paulinho missing a header for the Blaugranas at the other end.

Willian, ever dangerous, broke against the run of play and drew a foul from Ivan Rakitic to earn a free kick five yards beyond the arc of the 18.

The attempt was Marcos Alonso territory, though Willian also stood over the ball. Alonso’s swooping kick dipped toward the near post but Marc-Andre ter Stegen got low to collect the ball.

Willian then cranked a shot off the far post after cutting quickly past Sergio Busquets. Five minutes later, he ripped one off the near post.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Willian did his damage in the 62nd minute, getting a Hazard cross atop the 18 and pending it around six bodies and inside the near post.

And Messi. I mean, what can you say? Chelsea went from 1-0 to level with an away goal conceded when Iniesta cut the ball back for Messi off an Andreas Christensen error and mistimed desperations slide from Cesar Azpilicueta.