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With Messi’s set pieces, Barcelona finds a way to get back on track

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MADRID — Under pressure and needing a victory, Barcelona didn’t mind leaving aside its ball-possession game for a while.

It was with set pieces that the team salvaged a crucial win this weekend to get back on track after a turbulent start to the year under coach Quique Setién.

Lionel Messi had three assists – two from free kicks – as Barcelona twice came from behind to defeat Real Betis 3-2 in Seville on Sunday. The victory kept the Catalan club three points behind Spanish league leader Real Madrid, which earlier had won 4-1 at Osasuna.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Barcelona didn’t fully abandon its traditional passing game, but it only got the goals it needed at Benito Villamarín Stadium thanks to the set pieces. The team was losing 2-1 when Messi found Sergio Busquets inside the area for the equalizer just before halftime, and after the break it was a header from Clement Lenglet off another cross from Messi that gave Barcelona the win.

“What hurts the most is that their team can score a thousand different ways but we conceded two goals from free kicks far from the area,” Real Betis coach Rubi said.

Barcelona continued to improve despite the narrow victory, relieving some of the pressure over Setién since he replaced Ernesto Valverde at the beginning of the year.

“We’ve played more games and had more time to practice under him,” Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto said. “After a change, you always need some time to adapt, but it’s a lot easier to work after victories.”

Next for Barcelona will be a league game at home against third-place Getafe, which has been playing some of the best soccer in Spain recently.

GETAFE’S RUN

Getafe again has become the sensation of the Spanish league.

For the second straight season, the modest club from southern Madrid is hanging around near the top of the standings, contending for a Champions League spot and outplaying some more traditional Spanish teams.

Getafe is in third place after 23 matches, ahead of Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Valencia. It trails second-place Barcelona by seven points and Real Madrid by 10.

“It’s a tough team to beat,” Valencia coach Albert Celades said. “It plays very solidly on defense and it doesn’t concede many goals. When a team is in third place like that, it’s because it does a lot of things well, there is no doubt about that.”

Valencia was Getafe’s latest victim on Saturday, routed 3-0. In the previous round, Getafe had won 2-0 at Athletic Bilbao.

Getafe was in contention for a Champions League spot until the end of last season, holding on to fourth place until being overcome by Valencia with two rounds to go. It will face Ajax in the round of 32 of this season’s Europa League.

EFFECTIVE STRIKERS

Real Sociedad’s Alexander Isak and Espanyol’s Raúl de Tomás have been among the hottest strikers in Europe.

Isak has scored eight goals in his last six games, including one in Sociedad’s 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Basque Country derby in the Spanish league on Sunday. A few days earlier he had scored twice in the team’s stunning 4-3 win at Real Madrid in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.

The 20-year-old Isak, who already plays for Sweden’s national team, joined Sociedad from Borussia Dortmund last year.

De Tomás, Espanyol’s most expensive transfer after joining from Benfica in January, has scored in each of his first five matches with the Barcelona club. His latest goal was a 58th-minute winner against Granada on Sunday, giving his team its first home victory in the Spanish league this season.

He was signed for a reported 20 million euros ($21.9 million) plus add-ons, surpassing the nearly 10 million euros ($10.9 million) the Spanish club had paid for Matías Vargas last year.

The 25-year-old de Tomás has a contract with Espanyol until 2026. He used to play in the youth squads of Real Madrid before joining second-division club Rayo Vallecano on a loan. He was eventually sold to Benfica for 20 million euros ($21.9 million).

Multiple reports: Watford set to hire Gracia as manager

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Watford looks set to appoint Javi Gracia to its managerial position, hours after firing Marco Silva and blaming Everton for the manager.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

Gracia led Malaga to eighth and ninth place finishes in La Liga between 2014-16 before spending last season at Rubin Kazan.

Gracia, 47, has led promotion campaigns in Spain and has plenty of experience with perceived smaller clubs battling the drop zone.

Watford will hope the Hornets don’t reach that point, still five points clear of the drop after flirting with the Top Seven for the first quarter of the Premier League season.

Financial Fair Play slams Manchester City with huge fine, squad reduction

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Fresh off Manchester City’s triumphant Premier League season, they will be hard pressed to repeat thanks to the new Financial Fair Play rules.

Along with Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg, Galatasaray, Anzhi Makhachkala, Rubin Kazan, Trabzonspor, Bursaspor, and PFC Levski Sofia, City has been found to have breached FFP regulations and will be accordingly punished.

According to the documented release by UEFA, Manchester City has agreed to:

  • Pay a fine of $82.19 million
  • Cap its Champions League roster at 21 players (down from 25), 8 of which must be “homegrown”
  • Cap its wages at their current level outside of performance bonuses
  • A break-even financial deficit for the next two fiscal years
  • Have its expenditure allowance reduced below the level of other clubs (essentially a probationary period).

Read the full UEFA report here.

The investigation found that Manchester City’s net losses of $207 million was bankrolled entirely by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, the club’s owner. The bankroll was covered up in sponsorships but they were too closely tied to Sheikh Mansour for UEFA’s liking.

Manchester City has released a statement claiming they have “engaged with UEFA in its introduction of the Financial Fair Play Regulations in good faith and without prejudice and in a transparent and collaborative manner.”

Essentially, they disagree with the findings of the FFP investigation, citing the facts that they’ve been “operating with no debt” and “realizing its football and commercial opportunities whilst continuing unprecedented investments in both youth development and the local community.”

However, they admit that while they would like to challenge the findings, they have decided not to for “practical realities.”  That’s because they can’t – the ruling has no appeal.

Therefore, the club confirms that the eventual punishments laid down were a “compromise agreement.” Most clubs were given the opportunity to settle with UEFA.

City claims that they already used a 21-player roster this past season for the Champions League, however the team’s official UEFA roster lists 24 players as part of their “A” list.

The punishments given to Manchester City were exactly the same as those handed down to Paris Saint-Germain, who responded with a club statement of their own.  You can view all UEFA documents pertaining to these sanctions here.

Interestingly enough, heavy spenders Monaco were not included in the FFP sanctions and appear to be safe.

Iranian teen confirms Arsenal, Milan offers

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According to Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun, Arsenal is among a trio of top teams vying for his signature this summer.

The 19-year-old has three goals in 10 appearances in the Russian Premier Liga as well as a goal in the Europa League, and has told Iranian television that his play has attracted the world’s best.

“I have offers from three major clubs: Arsenal, AC Milan and Juventus,” Azmoun told showNavad. “I also had an offer from Barcelona, but due to their transfer ban the club is out of the picture at the moment.”

He labeled the talks with the Gunners, along with Milan, as “very serious.” The teen also said there have been conversations between the clubs as well, not just with him and his agent.

Azmoun did finish by saying he is “only focusing on the Russian league” but judging by his previous statements it’s fair to take that one with a grain of salt.

He has come on strong recently, scoring two of his three goals in Kazan’s two most recent matches, although they lost both. He has been given a chance thanks to the poor form of 32-year-old striker Ruslan Mukhametshin, who has just one goal in eight appearances, and has been benched in favor of Azmoun for five straight matches now.

Azmoun has yet to be capped by the Iranian senior team, but

After 21 matches, Kazan is in 9th position out of the 16-team league.

Mexican international Hector Moreno is a wanted man. Where will he go?

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Mexican defender Hector Moreno is a man in demand.

Teams from the Premier League, La Liga and Russia are all chasing his signature. Moreno’s options are plentiful and varied. Where will the former Pumas UNAM man go?

Spanish reports claim that both Swansea City and Cardiff City could pounce to sign Espanyol’s defender. With a transfer fee in excess of $12 million expected by the Barcelona-based club. So far, nobody has met that valuation but today Russian side Rubin Kazan have jumped ahead of the two Welsh clubs with a $10 million bid.

Espanyol have described the player as “untouchable” but that bid from Kazan is going to test their mettle.

Moreno, 25, has played 46 times for Mexico and is a rising star in La Liga. It is clear to understand why Espanyol don’t want to sell their defensive lynchpin but with the club still battling financial problems, Moreno may have to move on.

Forever living in the shadows of cross city rivals FC Barcelona, Espanyol looked to have made a huge step forward when they moved into the brand new Estadio Cornellà-El Prat for the 2009-10 season. But the new venue has crippled the club with debt and forced them to sell off several players and they lost manager Mauricio Pochettino.

(MORE: Monday’s Transfer Rumor Roundup, Abdulrahman to Arsenal, Defoe to West Brom)

Through all of that, Moreno has remained at Espanyol. But now the tough-tackling defender should probably move on. He’s outgrown Espanyol, just like he outgrew AZ Alkmaar when he first moved to European soccer in 2008.

He can reach the very top of the European game. No doubt about that. A move to the Premier League, especially to Swansea, would suit Moreno. He is use to playing out from the back in Spain and Michael Laudrup encourages that at the Liberty Stadium. And with Swansea’s central defender Ashley Williams attracting interest from Arsenal, Moreno could be an excellent replacement in South Wales.

For now the rumor mill will continue to churn out possible destinations for Moreno. He could remain in Spain with Espanyol or another La Liga side, go to the Premier League or get Europa League soccer with Rubin Kazan.

Whatever happens the Mexican internationals steady rise to stardom will continue on European soil. In some country. Somewhere.