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Coutinho losing playing time in complicating situation

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According to reports in Spain, Philippe Coutinho‘s agents Kia Joorabchian and Giuliano Bertolucci have contacted Barcelona over concerns about his playing time.

However, with a noticeable dip in Coutinho’s recent performance and Ernesto Valverde’s preference for young Ousmane Dembele on the wing, the 26-year-old Brazilian has found himself in a difficult situation, with slight criticism beginning to come from team management.

Prior to Barcelona’s surprising 2-1 loss to Levante in the Copa del Rey final 16, Valverde’s assistant Jon Aspiazu gave a newsworthy response when asked about the Brazilian’s recent lack of playing time. “Coutinho is perhaps not at last year’s level and Dembélé has passed a little above him,” Aspiazu said on the GOL television broadcast of the match. He did reverse that take slightly, following up with, “But he is a player which we consider as a starter and will be very important for us in the remainder of the season, for sure.”

Coutinho has not started any of the last four La Liga matches, with Barcelona winning those four games against Espanyol, Levante, Celta Vigo, and Getafe by a combined 13-1. Valverde not only has directly replaced the Brazilian in the starting lineup with 21-year-old Dembele, but Valverde has added Arturo Vidal to the midfield duo of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, leaving absolutely no room for Coutinho in the lineup.

Coutinho did start the Copa del Rey loss to Levante and play the full 90 minutes, but he was uninspiring despite bagging a late goal from the penalty spot, with Barcelona looking lost in Lionel Messi’s absence. He completed just one pass in the penalty area and collected two key passes, failing to register a single shot on target outside his penalty.

After the Copa del Rey defeat, Valverde was asked about Coutinho’s weakening squad position, and he was far more diplomatic than Aspiazu, but still managed to acknowledge the situation. “If a player is not happy, he has to fight to reverse the situation,” Valverde said.

With ranking club staff addressing the situation publicly and his agents reportedly firing back privately, Coutinho’s status with the Barcelona squad feels like it’s at a crossroads. Despite Barcelona’s surprising Copa del Rey loss, they still hold a five-point lead at the top of the La Liga table, and this could all possibly be for nothing should the Brazilian improve his play and earn more time on the pitch. However, if he continues to ride the bench through the next month, it could trigger clubs to try and pry him away from the Catalan club and take advantage of his worsening squad position.

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.

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

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Report: Neymar has been asking Barcelona to buy him back

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This is pretty sad.

Not in a “death of a family pet” way, rather a “buck up, son” way.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines ]

Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar wants to return to Barcelona, and the megastar’s father has contacted Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu a handful of times in a bid to return to the Camp Nou.

From Marca:

“He is disappointed and sorry,” El Mundo report the player’s father as saying to the Barcelona president.

Anyway, if true, this is a big one (even if a move clearly wouldn’t happen until the summer).

The left winger has 18 goals and nine assists in 21 matches this season, including five and two in the UEFA Champions League. He was blanked against Napoli but had a goal and an assist against Liverpool.

His PSG record on the whole is unreal, with 46 goals and 25 assists in 51 games.

At 26, he’s got years left in his prime and Malcom, Ousmane Dembele, and Philippe Coutinho have yet to grab the proverbial bulls by their horns.

Here’s why the move would not necessarily be insane rumor mill click-mongering: It takes a special cat to thrive with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and Neymar has proven he can do that. In fact, he’d likely be in line to play a bigger role than when he previously spent time at Barca.

Top 5 Premier League games of 2018

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As we continue our Best Of series on the final day of 2018, we look back on what was a wild ride in the English top flight. Between Manchester City’s dominance, Liverpool’s rise, Manchester United’s roller coaster ride, Tottenham’s slow evolution, and the rest of the league’s parity, we were gifted with some fabulous and entertaining results. Here are the ones that gave us the most enjoyment in what was a fantastic pool to choose from.

5) Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United

In just a few days, one of these teams would secure one of the most dominant Premier League title runs in the history of the league. One of these teams would sack its manager before the calendar year was out. And yet, that is not how this game unfolded.

[ MORE: Best of 2018 series ]

Needing a win to secure the Premier League title – a win they would get a few days later – City opened the game 2-0 in front by the half-hour mark. Vincent Kompany scored a thumping header – his first league goal since the final day of the previous season – and Ilkay Gundogan doubled the lead in the 30th minute on a fabulous spin. From there, City would completely lose its shooting boots, allowing their rivals to come back into the game. Gundogan hit the bar minutes after his goal, and Paul Pogba scored after the break to bring United within one. Pogba would find another moments later with a perfect header, and that would lead to Chris Smalling‘s winner in the 69th minute. David De Gea had to make a stunning save on Sergio Aguero’s header, and again on Raheem Sterling who had a tap-in but barely made contact. This Manchester derby was the stuff of legends, although the losers in this battle ultimately won the war.

4) Liverpool 2-2 Tottenham

Liverpool gave us goals upon goals upon goals in the 2017/18 season – and are continuing to do so in this campaign – so they rightly appear multiple times on this list. For this wonderful game from last season, three goals were scored in the final 10 minutes of regulation plus stoppage time as the teams split the points. Mohamed Salah scored just three minutes into the match thanks to a terrible mistake by Eric Dier, and 1-0 was the score all the way through until the final 10 minutes when game elevated to bonkers status.

In the 80th minute, Victory Wanyama scored an absolute missile into the top corner after Karius punched an earlier effort, a goal worthy to be the trigger to the wild portion of this game. With three minutes to go in regulation, Karius sliced down Harry Kane in the penalty area, but the ensuing spot-kick by Kane was right down the middle and Karius stood firm to keep it out. In the first minute of stoppage time, Salah grabbed his second weaving through traffic to send Jurgen Klopp flying down the sidelines, but with the absolute last kick of the game, Virgil Van Dijk hacked at Erik Lamela‘s leg and Kane could atone from the penalty spot, scoring to level the match.

3) Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham

What would this list be without a pulsating North London derby? With the chance to jump Spurs in the table, Arsenal won a back-and-forth game that saw the winning goal scored with 15 minutes remaining. While the Gunners jumped out to a 1-0 lead, Spurs went 2-1 up before halftime on a Harry Kane penalty after Rob Holding fouled Heung-Min Son in the area. After halftime, it was all Gunners as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leveled the score and Alexandre Lacazette came off the bench to put the hosts up for good. Lucas Torreira bagged his first Arsenal goal with 13 minutes remaining for the icing on the cake.

The game wasn’t without the usual vitriol, as Eric Dier equalized at 1-1 before celebrating in front of Arsenal fans, causing a small melee that saw Gunners substitutes get involved, as well as Spurs head coach Mauricio Pochettino who came running in to help break things up. Pochettino after the match blamed recent European play for Spurs’ second-half meltdown, and while Arsenal temporarily had control of the table for a short time, Spurs would eventually jump back ahead of them and remain in front by Christmas.

2) Manchester City 2-3 Crystal Palace

It’s absolutely incredible that Manchester City has proven so dominant of late, and yet they appear on this list three times – all losses. When you’re at the top, there’s a target on your back, and that has proven the case with City this season. Crystal Palace became the second team to take down the defending champions this campaign, and did so in come-from-behind fashion.

Ilkay Gundoguan put Man City ahead just before the half-hour mark, but the visitors at the Etihad would score the next three, including THAT goal from Andros Townsend, a strike that will be tough to beat for Goal of the Season. After the match, Roy Hodgson said Townsend had “one of those bonanza days,” and he couldn’t have picked a better stage to perform at such a level.

1) Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City

Last season’s match of the year has yet to be beaten, a thrilling January match between two heavyweights that set the stage for the coming calendar year. It was the first loss of the entire league season for Man City, coming in Liverpool’s first game without Philippe Coutinho (remember him?). It provided the blueprint for beating Manchester City, as Pep Guardiola lost just five Premier League matches the entire 2018 calendar year, and three of them appear on this list.

With the teams even at 1-1 at the break thanks to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Leroy Sane, the Reds pounced on either side of the hour mark. Roberto Firmino bagged the first, and Sadio Mane scored the goal of the game with a blast into the top corner on a break. Ederson made a rare mistake to gift Liverpool a fourth, which proved to be decisive as City scored two goals in the final six minutes to give the Reds a scare. It was a scintillating match, and one that we’ll remember as the best of the year.

Spurs draw in Barcelona, advance in Champions League

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Lucas Moura‘s late goal off the bench gave Tottenham Hotspur a 1-1 away draw at Barcelona in UEFA Champions League play on Tuesday at the Camp Nou.

The draw, coupled with Inter Milan drawing PSV Eindhoven, is enough to send Spurs into the knockout rounds.

Ousmane Dembele scored for Barcelona, who had already won the group.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]

Dembele cooked Kyle Walker-Peters and then waited out a sliding challenge of Harry Winks before slotting past Hugo Lloris for a cool opener.

Spurs’ fight back was lively with a pair of attempts each for Heung-Min Son and Harry Kane that were thwarted by goalkeeper Jesper Cillessen or shot-blocking defenders.

Kane made a fine run past Clement Llenglet but hit his shot well over the bar as Tottenham’s second half began with chances.

Walker-Peters made a fine sliding block on Philippe Coutinho in the 55th minute, and Barcelona would sub Lionel Messi into the game a few minutes later.

Lucas Moura entered the game for Spurs, and forced a save out of Cillessen before missing wide from an odd angle.

Coutinho hit the post again, a minute before Spurs got their huge equalizer. Lamela slipped Kane into the left side of the box, and Moura popped Kane’s square cross past Cillessen.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]