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Barcelona jets in for a day to beat South African champs

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) Ousmane Dembele, Luis Suarez and Andre Gomes scored as Barcelona beat South Africa’s Mamelodi Sundowns 3-1 on Wednesday in a friendly marking 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela.

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Lionel Messi didn’t start the game at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg but drew a roar from the crowd as big as any other on the night when he got up off the bench and started to warm up 20 minutes into the second half. He came on for the last 15 minutes. Andres Iniesta did start in his return to the stadium where he won the World Cup for Spain in 2010.

Dembele, Suarez and Gomes all took advantage of defensive errors, with Dembele curling a left-foot shot into net in the third minute and Suarez doubling the lead in the 18th minute. Gomes added the third in the 66th.

Sibusiso Vilakazi scored Sundowns’ goal late on but the Spanish champions were in cruise control against the South African league winner. Barcelona returns home to play its last game of the Spanish season on Sunday against Real Sociedad, Iniesta’s farewell match after 22 years at Barcelona.

AT THE HALF: Barcelona down to 10 men, tied 1-1 with Real Madrid

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Sergi Roberto was the most involved player on the field during the first half of Sunday’s El Clasico clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.

[ MORE: Wenger speaks, bids farewell to Emirates after final home game ]

The 26-year-old whipped in a delightful cross for Luis Suarez to hammer home the game’s opening goal in the 10th minute, before seeing a straight red card for a slap to the face of Marcelo during first-half stoppage time.

[ MORE: Klopp admits Champions League run taking toll on Liverpool ]

In between Roberto’s assist and red card, only five minutes after the opening goal, Cristiano Ronaldo drew Madrid level with a tap-in to finish a beautiful crafted sequence inside Barca’s penalty area.

With 45 minutes left to play, Los Blancos represent the Blaugrana‘s final major hurdle of the season as the latter closes in on the first-ever unbeaten, 38-game La Liga season.

Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

WORLD CUP: Uruguay striker Suarez seeking redemption

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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) Uruguay’s priority will be keeping Luiz Suarez tamed at this year’s World Cup.

After the striker was expelled from the 2014 tournament in disgrace for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, Uruguay was eliminated by Colombia in the round of 16.

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Suarez promises he is a reformed character and will be better behaved in Russia than in Brazil, where he scored twice before being banned.

“It was my mistake,” Suarez said. “So I have a debt to repay to myself and Uruguay, to try to show a good image.”

Things were already starting to look brighter for two-time World Cup champion Uruguay, based on qualifying at least.

After enduring four consecutive World Cup playoffs and only reaching three of the tournaments, Uruguay secured an automatic place in Russia by finishing second behind Brazil in qualifying.

Here’s a closer look at the Uruguay team:

COACH

Oscar Tabarez will lead Uruguay into his fourth World Cup after a first trip in 1990 followed by 2010 and 2014. A Tabarez team has always made it out of the group stage, including a semifinal appearance in South Africa eight years ago.

A former school teacher and professional player, Tabarez led Uruguay to the Copa America title in 2011. As a club coach, he led Penarol to the Copa Libertadores title in 1987 and Boca Juniors to an Argentine league title in 1992.

The 71-year-old Tabarez has used a wheelchair since he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in 2016.

GOALKEEPERS

There is little doubt Galatasaray goalkeeper Fernando Muslera will be between the posts for his third World Cup.

DEFENSE

The Atletico Madrid partnership of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez also anchor the heart of Uruguay’s defense. Godin has made more than 100 appearances since his debut in 2005 and scored at his third World Cup with a header against Italy in 2014. The 23-year-old Gimenez offers a solid companion to a player nine years his senior and already has one World Cup under his belt.

Versatile Lazio wingback Martin Caceres should also be sure of a starting spot unless there is a recurrence of one of his frequent injuries.

MIDFIELDERS

Tabarez has always had doubts about his midfield’s attacking qualities. While the unit has usually been capable of defending well, the midfielders have often struggled to generate chances for the forwards.

During qualifying, Tabarez called up several young players who improved in this area: Federico Valverde (19), Nahitan Nandez (22) and Rodrigo Bentancur (20).

FORWARDS

Uruguay shouldn’t be short of goals. The strikers are the team’s greatest strength.

Suarez is Uruguay’s all-time leading scorer with 50 goals and is coming off the back of a strong season with Barcelona. Paris Saint-Germain forward Edinson Cavani is next on the list with 41, including a continent-leading 10 goals in 18 matches in South American qualifying.

GROUP GAMES

Uruguay, which will be based in Nizhny Novgorod, will face Egypt in its first match on June 15. That will be followed by matches against Saudi Arabia on June 20 and Russia on June 25.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Barcelona cruise past Sevilla, lift historic 4th straight Copa del Rey

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MADRID (AP) Barcelona became the first team in 85 years to win four straight Copa del Rey titles after blowing away Sevilla 5-0 in the final on Saturday.

Luis Suarez scored twice, and Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Philippe Coutinho also made the scoresheet for Barcelona’s record-extending 30th Copa triumph, and sixth in the last decade.

Sevilla was trying to win a sixth Copa and save a season which will end without any trophies and maybe not even a place in the Europa League next season.

The final took place at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the capital amid the ongoing political turmoil involving Catalonia’s bid for independence.

There were jeers by part of the Barcelona crowd when the national anthem was played, but the boos were largely subdued by the reaction of the numerous Sevilla fans in the crowd. Spain’s King Felipe VI smiled and saluted the fans after the anthem.

No other team had won four Copa titles in a row since Athletic Bilbao from 1930-33. The only other team to do it was Real Madrid from 1905-08.

Barcelona lost a chance to win the treble when it was eliminated by Roma in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it is three points away from winning the Spanish league.