Villarreal Beat Manchester United To Win Europa League

 

Villarreal stunned Manchester United after a marathon penalty shoot-out, with goalkeeper David de Gea missing the last spot-kick, in the Europa League final to lift their first-ever major trophy on Wednesday in Gdansk.

It finished 1-1 after 120 minutes as Gerard Moreno put the unfancied Spaniards ahead in the 29th minute before Edinson Cavani levelled early in the second half.

But Villarreal won a remarkable shoot-out 11-10, leaving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer still waiting for his first trophy as United manager.

Villarreal players celebrate their victory at the end of the 2021 UEFA Europa League football final between Spain’s Villarreal and England’s Manchester United at the Gdansk Stadium in the Polish city of Gdansk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by ALEKSANDRA SZMIGIEL / POOL / AFP)
Villarreal players celebrate their victory at the end of the 2021 UEFA Europa League football final between Spain’s Villarreal and England’s Manchester United at the Gdansk Stadium in the Polish city of Gdansk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by ALEKSANDRA SZMIGIEL / POOL / AFP)
Villarreal’s Spanish midfielder Moises (C) and teammates celebrate after winning the UEFA Europa League final football match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at the Gdansk Stadium in Gdansk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP)
Villarreal’s Spanish midfielder Moises (C) and teammates celebrate after winning the UEFA Europa League final football match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at the Gdansk Stadium in Gdansk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP)
Villarreal’s Spanish midfielder Moises (C) and teammates celebrate after winning the UEFA Europa League final football match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at the Gdansk Stadium in Gdansk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP)
Villarreal’s Spanish forward Paco Alcacer (C) celebrates after winning the UEFA Europa League final football match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at the Gdansk Stadium in Gdansk on May 26, 2021. (Photo by MAJA HITIJ / POOL / AFP)

Haaland Double Fires Dortmund Into Champions League Quarter-Finals

 

Erling Braut Haaland scored twice as Borussia Dortmund held off a late Sevilla fightback to reach the Champions League quarter-finals with a ‘crazy, amazing’ 5-4 aggregate win after a frantic 2-2 second-leg draw on Tuesday.

Haaland, who also netted a double in Dortmund’s 3-2 last 16 first-leg victory, tapped in a first-half opener and scored a retaken penalty after the break behind closed doors at Signal Iduna Park.

“It was a hard game –- I’m tired now, but to be in the next round feels very good,” Haaland told Sky.

“It was a crazy game and a crazy, amazing win.”

Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri scored a 69th-minute spot-kick and a last-gasp equaliser but Dortmund clung on.

“We’re not happy with the result. Truth is, we didn’t have any luck –- they had one chance and they scored,” En-Nesyri told Movistar.

“We fought until the last minute.”

Haaland, the man of the match, is the competition’s top-scorer this season with 10 goals in six games.

The 20-year-old is the youngest player to reach 20 Champions League goals, in just 14 appearances, breaking the previous mark set by Kylian Mbappe.

“We have been punished by a player (Haaland) who will make his mark on this era,” predicted Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui.

Although they had lost three of their four previous games, Sevilla dominated the opening exchanges and Dortmund had to withstand intense early pressure before taking the lead against the run of play.

When the Spaniards lost possession in their own half, Dortmund midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud slipped a pass to Marco Reus, who sprinted to reach the ball at the byline and Haaland diverted in his cut-back.

‘Turbulent’ finish

He had the ball in the net again just after the interval, but the goal was disallowed after the referee decided Haaland had fouled Sevilla defender Fernando before firing home from a tight angle after consulting the pitchside monitor.

However, the referee also awarded a penalty after spotting a foul on Haaland earlier in the build-up.

Reus, Dortmund’s usual penalty taker, stepped aside to allow Haaland to take the spot-kick.

Although his first effort was tipped onto the post by Yassine Bounou, the Sevilla goalkeeper moved before the kick was taken and Haaland made no mistake with his second attempt.

Both Haaland and Sevilla midfielder Joan Jordan were booked for some pushing and shoving, with the La Liga side angered by Haaland’s celebrations.

“I missed the first penalty, but if he’d stood on the line I’d have scored, but he cheated,” added Haaland.

“I was a little bit nervous on the second penalty, but I knew it would be nice to score a second goal.”

Dortmund defender Emre Can also earned a yellow card and gave away a penalty for a blatant push on Sevilla forward Luuk de Jong, which Morocco striker En-Nesyri blasted home.

With five minutes left, Bounou produced a stunning reflex save from Dahoud’s shot in the area.

However, Sevilla were not finished and En-Nesyri netted again with a powerful header just before the final whistle as Dortmund weathered a late storm.

“It was a turbulent game,” said Dortmund caretaker coach Edin Terzic.

“It’s not a given for us to get this far, so now to be among the best eight in Europe makes us very happy. Erling Haaland was just outstanding.”

AFP

Barcelona Raise The Stakes In Madrid Derby After Osasuna Win

 

Barcelona cranked up the pressure on Sunday’s Madrid derby by beating Osasuna 2-0 on Saturday night to edge two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

Lionel Messi set up both goals in Pamplona as Jordi Alba hammered home in the first half before the 18-year-old Ilaix Moriba came off the bench to curl in an impressive shot late in the second.

“Thankfully Leo gave me the pass and I don’t know how I cut in and shot with my left foot, I’m just glad it went in,” Ilaix said. “I will never forget it, I will take that goal to my grave.”

Ilaix’s strike was his first goal in La Liga and another breakthrough moment for a Barca youngster, 24 hours before the club hopes a brighter future can begin under a new president.

Before the winner of the elections — contested by Joan Laporta, Victor Font, and Toni Freixa — is confirmed on Sunday night, Atletico will face Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, where Barcelona will surely be hoping for anything other than a home win.

A few weeks ago, Ronald Koeman’s side looked too far adrift in the title race but 10 victories out of 11 have shot them back into contention, even if Atletico remain in the driving seat with two games in hand.

“Any result is good for us,” said Koeman.

After coming from two goals down to beat Sevilla after extra-time in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, Barcelona now have one trophy, and perhaps even a domestic double, in their sights.

Their success in recent months has owed much to a talented crop of youngsters, with Ilaix — a dynamic but technically gifted midfielder — the latest to emerge.

“Every time he comes into the team he gives the team something extra,” said Koeman. “Because of his personality, his energy, most of all he’s good with the ball, and physically he’s a strong boy. He’s gaining ground and showing he can be more with the first team.”

Barca faced some nervy moments early on as Jonathan Calleri tried an ambitious lob from distance before Ruben Garcia’s curler from the edge of the area required an athletic save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Messi shot wide and then set up the opener, drifting in from the right and spotting the scuttling Alba racing in behind on the opposite side. Messi clipped a pass through three Osasuna defenders for Alba to collect and he lashed it high and in from the angle.

Garcia deserved an equaliser soon after for his first touch alone, a sumptuous cushioning of a long ball forward, but Ter Stegen was again there to deny the finish.

There was more control about the second half but Barcelona needed a second to make it comfortable and substitute Ilaix seized his moment, shaping to shoot with his right before coolly rolling onto his left and whipping his shot into the corner.

While Barcelona sustained momentum from their midweek victory in the cup, Sevilla failed to bounce back, instead sinking to another loss away at Elche earlier on Saturday.

Raul Guti and Guido Carrillo sealed a crucial 2-1 win for Elche, with Luuk de Jong adding a late consolation for Sevilla, who have now lost three consecutive matches in eight days.

They sit six points ahead of Real Sociedad in fifth. Elche climb to 17th, two points above the bottom three.

Former Barcelona President Bartomeu Arrested

 

Former Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was arrested on Monday as part of a police investigation into last year’s BarcaGate scandal, a source with knowledge of the case told AFP.

Bartomeu, who resigned as president in October, was among several arrests made just six days ahead of the club’s new presidential elections on Sunday.

Barcelona’s current chief executive Oscar Grau, head of legal services Roma Gomez Ponti, and Bartomeu’s advisor Jaume Masferrer were also arrested by Catalan police, who searched the club’s offices on Monday morning.

Bartomeu, Masferrer, Grau, and Gomez Ponti “are being detained at the police station” as part of the operation, the same source told AFP.

Barcelona released a statement confirming the operation is linked to last year’s BarcaGate controversy when the club was accused of covering up payments made to a company called I3 Ventures, hired to boost the image of then-president Bartomeu on social media.

A Catalan police spokesman told AFP on Monday morning “arrests are taking place” and said the operation was run by officers from the financial crimes unit.

Part of the social media campaign included criticising current and former players, like Lionel Messi, Pep Guardiola, and Xavi Hernandez. Messi described the controversy as “strange” in an interview with Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.

Barca’s statement on Monday read: “Regarding the entry and search by the Catalan Police force this morning at the Camp Nou offices by order of the Instructing Court number 13 in Barcelona, which is in charge of the case relating to the contacting of monitoring services on social networks, FC Barcelona have offered up their full collaboration to the legal and police authorities to help make clear facts which are subject to investigation.

“The information and documentation requested by the judicial police force relate strictly to the facts relative to this case.”

Spanish radio station Cadena Ser claimed Barca paid I3 Ventures an inflated fee and put payments through in smaller, separate amounts to avoid the club’s financial controls.

Emili Rousaud, who resigned as Barcelona vice-president in March last year, said in an interview with RAC1 at the time: “If the auditors tell us the cost of these services is 100,000 euros and we have paid one million, it means someone has had their hand in the till.” The club took legal action against him.

Rousaud was among six Barca executives to leave their posts, with a joint letter citing the scandal as a key issue needing to be resolved.

‘Plugging gaps’

Bartomeu maintained the company had been hired only to monitor posts on social media and announced an internal audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which cleared the club of financial corruption in July.

“Let one thing be clear,” Bartomeu said. “To the question: Have we commissioned the monitoring of social networks? The answer is yes. “To the question: Have we commissioned to discredit people or institutions through social networks? The answer is no and we will take action against all those who accuse us of that.”

Yet Bartomeu resigned in October, avoiding a vote of no confidence triggered after more than 20,000 club members signed a petition against him.

His departure came in the same month Barcelona announced losses of 97 million euros ($114 million) for last season and debts that had more than doubled to 488 million euros.

As well as a series of political blunders, Bartomeu had also overseen a dramatic decline in performances on the pitch and a personal falling-out with Messi, who tried to leave for free last summer.

Messi accused the club of “always juggling everything and plugging gaps” under Bartomeu’s leadership.

Bartomeu’s successor is due to be elected on Sunday, when club members will choose between the final three candidates, Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font.

“In light of events that took place today, we express our respect for the police and the judiciary, and we defend the presumption of innocence. And we deeply regret that these events diminish the reputation of the club,” said Laporta.

“Too many people want to hurt Barca,” wrote Freixa on Twitter. “We will not allow it.”

About 25m Nigerians Set To Benefit From FG’s Solar Program – Presidency

A photo of assembled solar panels.

 

The federal government will next week commence the process of installing five million solar home systems in under-served and off-grid communities across the country.

The Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media & Publicity in the Office of the Vice President, Mr. Laolu Akande confirmed the development on Monday.

The program is expected to benefit about 25 million Nigerians.

The program will include the assembly and manufacturing of components of off-grid solutions to facilitate the growth of the local manufacturing industry, while use of local content will be incentivized, Akande added.

It is also expected to create about 250,000 jobs including in manufacturing, assembling, installations, maintenance, and payment systems.

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Beneficiaries of the program will pay between N1,500 and N4,000 monthly to access power from the solar system.

The solar program is part of plans devised by the Economic Sustainability Committee, which is chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

According to government sources, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) will make available funds to the private companies in the solar power sub sector involved in the manufacture, assembling, installation, servicing of the solar systems, at rates ranging between 5 to 10 percent, way below the current commercial lending rates in the country.

Atletico Madrid Announce Signing Of Luis Suarez From Barcelona

Barcelona’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League quarter-final football match against Bayern Munich at the Luz stadium in Lisbon on August 14, 2020. Manu Fernandez / POOL / AFP

 

Atletico Madrid announced the signing of Barcelona forward Luis Suarez late on Wednesday, confirming the Uruguayan striker is set to continue playing in La Liga rather than joining Juventus in Italy.

Barcelona said that Atletico had agreed to pay six million euros for Suarez, who left his last training session in tears on Wednesday having been told over the summer that he was no longer required by new coach Ronald Koeman.

Since joining Barca from Liverpool in 2014, Suarez has won a host of trophies, including the 2015 Champions League and four Liga titles.

He leaves as the club’s third-highest scorer with 198 goals behind Cesar Rodriguez (232) and Lionel Messi (634).

The move to Barcelona’s La Liga rivals follows a failed attempt to join Juventus.

Juve coach Andrea Pirlo disclosed last week a deal was unlikely because of delays in the Uruguayan’s bid to get an Italian passport.

On Tuesday, prosecutors in Perugia said they suspected Suarez of cheating to pass his Italian language test with the aid of examiners suspected of helping him.

The exit of the 33-year-old from Camp Nou comes as Koeman attempts to reshape Barcelona.

As well as Suarez, the Dutchman has shown the exit to Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic, while French defender Samuel Umtiti is also set to leave.

Spanish television channel Gol showed Suarez wiping away tears with his sleeve as he drove off after saying his last goodbyes to teammates at Barcelona’s Sant Joan Despi training centre.

Man City Pounce On Varane Mistakes To Dump Out Real Madrid

 

Manchester City took advantage of two shocking mistakes by Raphael Varane to beat Real Madrid 2-1 in their Champions League last 16-second leg on Friday and advance to the quarter-finals as Pep Guardiola came out on top in his duel with Zinedine Zidane.

The Frenchman had never been knocked out of Europe’s elite club competition as Real coach, leading them to three consecutive victories between 2016 and 2018 in his first spell before returning to the job last year.

But Madrid had been left with a mountain to climb in this tie after throwing away the lead to lose 2-1 in the first leg in Spain in February, before the coronavirus forced the competition into hibernation.

An identical defeat at an empty Etihad Stadium means it is City who advance 4-2 on aggregate.

READ ALSO: Lyon Hold Off Juventus To Reach Champions League Quarter-Finals

Without Sergio Ramos due to suspension, Real were undone by mistakes by their other first-choice centre-back.

Varane was dispossessed inside the box in the ninth minute allowing Raheem Sterling to put City ahead, and his poor headed backpass attempt gifted Gabriel Jesus another goal midway through the second half.

Before that second goal the tie had been in the balance with the in-form Karim Benzema having scored for the visitors just before the half-hour mark.

The circumstances may be highly unusual, but this is still City’s finest Champions League result, their most significant victory in a knock-out tie.

Their best performance in the competition remains a run to the semi-finals in 2016, when they went out rather limply to Real.

Now they should very possibly be considered the favourites to win the competition in Lisbon on August 23.

If they do so, the victory would taste all the sweeter coming so soon after their successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration of Sport against a two-year ban from Europe handed down by UEFA for breaches of their Financial Fair Play rules.

They have already qualified for next season’s tournament after coming second in the Premier League but now they can look forward to facing Lyon in the quarter-finals next Saturday at the Estadio Jose Alvalade.

Real, meanwhile, will get over this.

They have dined out on success in the Champions League in recent years but their main objective after the coronavirus shutdown was to win La Liga and they did that.

Zidane’s team overhauled Barcelona thanks to 10 successive victories after La Liga returned in June but they were not especially prolific in front of goal during that run, despite Benzema’s fine form.

Uphill struggle

It was already going to be an uphill struggle for them in the absence of Ramos, sent off late in the first leg, and their task became even harder after they conceded an early opener.

City’s high pressing paid off as Varane was barged off the ball in his own area by Jesus, who squared for Sterling to roll in.

There was a response from the 13-time European champions, though, with Benzema and Eden Hazard both forcing saves from Ederson before their equaliser on the night arrived in the 28th minute.

A fine move ended with Benzema feeding Rodrygo and the young Brazilian clipping in a cross from the right for the Frenchman, who rose above Aymeric Laporte and Fernandinho to head in from the edge of the six-yard box.

It was his 65th goal in the Champions League, putting him one clear of Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski on the overall list and behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Raul.

Unfortunately for Real, Benzema was not able to add to that tally and this tie was effectively ended by another Varane blooper.

The Frenchman struggled with an awkward high ball downfield and his header back towards Thibaut Courtois was short, allowing Jesus to prod it beyond the goalkeeper and into the net.

Real will not return to Lisbon, where they won the Champions League in 2014, but the dream remains alive for Guardiola and City.

AFP

Madrid’s ‘Worst Game Of Season’ In Betis Defeat, Lets Barca Back In

 

Real Madrid’s response to winning the Clasico was another surprise defeat on Sunday as they lost 2-1 away at Real Betis to hand the initiative straight back to Barcelona.

Betis were deserving victors of a thrilling contest at the Benito Villamarin where two galling Madrid errors cost them their place at the top of La Liga, with Barca now two points clear.

A heavy touch from Sergio Ramos led to Sidnei’s stunning opener for Betis and then Karim Benzema, who equalised with a penalty on the stroke of half-time, was at fault for their 82nd-minute winner.

Benzema’s misplaced pass in midfield allowed Cristian Tello to go clear and he held his nerve to give Betis their first victory in eight games that adds yet another twist to this season’s back-and-forth title race.

“We lacked everything today,” said Real coach Zinedine Zidane.

“It was our worst game of the season. We lacked energy, fluency, possession, aggression. It was a bad day and that can happen. I am responsible. We can’t lose our heads but we can’t be happy either.”

Madrid appeared to have taken a significant step forward, at least psychologically, by beating Barcelona 2-0 last weekend but this result undid all their good work at the Santiago Bernabeu while bringing defensive doubts swiftly back to the surface.

Betis climb to 12th and put eight points between themselves and the bottom three.

Madrid have now lost three out of their last four games and won only two from seven, a dip in form that has appeared even more charitable given Barca’s own problems on and off the pitch.

After a game at home to Eibar on Friday, Zinedine Zidane’s side will travel to Manchester City in the Champions League but on this evidence their hopes of recovering their 2-1 home defeat from the first leg would seem faint at best.

Ramos will be suspended at the Etihad Stadium and his own poor run of form continued against Betis, where he was at fault for their first goal and then complicit in compounding Benzema’s error for the second.

“We haven’t played the way we trained all week,” said Ramos. “We have to be self-critical. And now we have to wait for those above us to slip up.”

Eder Militao will likely come in for Ramos against City and he was given an outing at right-back in the absence of the ill Dani Carvajal while Marcelo was preferred to Ferland Mendy on the opposite side.

Gareth Bale was left out of the starting line-up for a fourth match running.

Betis were the better side in the first half and might have taken the lead earlier had Marc Bartra not headed over from four yards or Thibaut Courtois not reacted quickly to push away Nabil Fekir’s thundering shot.

But five minutes before half-time they finally broke through, aided by Ramos, who tried to dribble the ball out after Fekir’s shot was blocked only for a heavy touch to allow the forward to retrieve.

Off balance, Ramos bundled into Fekir and probably would have conceded a penalty had the loose ball not spilled to Sidnei, who instead hammered it into the top corner.

Deservedly in front, Betis then went in level at the interval as Sidnei, perhaps with the adrenaline still pumping, fouled Marcelo in the box. Benzema drove into the bottom corner for only his third goal this year.

Both teams had chances to find a winner. A scintillating Betis break ended with Sergio Canales sending Joaquin through but after rounding Courtois he tried to square back to Canales when the net looked open. Luka Modric sprinted back and hacked away.

Madrid enjoyed their own spell of pressure as Modric’s shot from distance was saved and Mendy, on for Marcelo, curled onto the crossbar, helped on its way by the fingertips of Joel Robles.

But it was Betis that landed the decisive blow, again benefitting from a Madrid mistake. Benzema came deep and his pass inside was loose, persuading Ramos to dash out to intercept but he was beaten and left stranded.

Andres Guardado put Tello through the gap and he sent Courtois diving towards one corner before sliding the ball into the other.

Barcelona Set To Sack Valverde, Reports Suggest

 

 

Barcelona are set to sack their coach, Ernesto Valverde, according to reports in the Spanish press.

Valverde took training on Monday morning but his future looks bleak, with the club expected to announce his departure following a board meeting in the afternoon at Camp Nou.

Valverde arrived more than two hours early at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper and took training as usual, despite Barca’s public pursuit of their iconic former midfielder Xavi Hernandez at the weekend.

Xavi, currently the coach of Qatari team Al-Sadd, indicated he is not prepared to take charge immediately but the negotiations left Valverde in limbo.

After training on Monday, Valverde met with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Bartomeu then drove to Camp Nou, where he held a board meeting with several club officials including chief executive Oscar Grau, technical secretary Javier Bordas, vice president Jordi Cardoner and sporting director Eric Abidal.

According to Catalunya Radio, Valverde was told the club would negotiate the terms of his exit with his agent. ESPN added that Valverde had collected his belongings from the training ground.

Barca could install a temporary replacement like B team coach Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta, perhaps with a view to appointing Xavi at the end of the season.

Otherwise, they could opt for a more permanent solution immediately. Former Tottenham Hotspur coach Mauricio Pochettino is a viable option, despite his previous claims he would never coach Barcelona due to connections with rivals Espanyol.

Ex-Real Betis coach Quique Setien, renowned for an attractive, attacking style of play, is out of work and has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Barcelona’s open hankering after Xavi has left a bitter taste, particularly with those who believe Valverde, who always speaks with sense and integrity, deserves better.

“I feel bad for Valverde, he doesn’t deserve this treatment,” former Barcelona coach, and current Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola said on Sunday. “I hope the situation can be resolved soon.”

European concerns

Barcelona sit top of La Liga, level on points with Real Madrid, and they face Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League next month, after sailing through top of their group.

Yet skepticism around Valverde’s suitability has long been building, with every loss prompting renewed speculation about his future.

Underpinning the doubts are Barca’s last two exits from the Champions League, after the team followed an incredible collapse against Roma in 2018 with a remarkably similar capitulation against Liverpool last year.

Given the obsession with bolstering their record in Europe, many were surprised the club did not opt for a fresh start last summer, even if Valverde’s domestic record has been excellent.

In his two completed seasons, Barca have won two La Liga titles, as well as the Copa del Rey in 2018, and another league title remains very much in sight this term, despite second-placed Madrid’s impressive form in recent weeks.

But Barcelona’s performances have been unconvincing — they have drawn three of their last four league games — and the flaws in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final loss to Atletico Madrid on Thursday, in which they conceded two late goals, felt all too familiar.

There have also been lingering concerns about a more pragmatic style of play, which for some has veered too far from the club’s possession-football DNA.

Nostalgia remains for the brilliance of Guardiola’s side, even if most of the players he was blessed with have gone.

When Valverde arrived to succeed Luis Enrique in 2017, Barcelona were wounded, hurting after the shock departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and humiliated, as consecutive defeats by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup hinted at trouble for the season ahead.

Instead, Valverde steadied the ship and galvanised the team.

They lost one league game en route to winning the title and the year after, they won again, finishing 11 points ahead of Atletico and 19 clear of Real.

Increasingly, though, Valverde’s achievements have faded from view and his failures then began to overshadow them, leaving Barcelona to consider that his time might be up.

‘We Made Children’s Mistakes’, Says Messi After Barca Stunned By Atletico

 

Lionel Messi said Barcelona were guilty of playing like children on Thursday after Atletico Madrid staged a thrilling comeback to beat them 3-2 and set up a Spanish Super Cup final against Real Madrid.

Barca looked on course for a Sunday showdown against Real when they led 2-1 with nine minutes left but instead, it will be a Madrid derby in Saudi Arabia to decide who lifts the trophy.

“It’s a shame because we switched off for a few moments and made children’s mistakes,” Messi said. “We should have closed out the match.

“It’s a blow for us, especially as we were the better team. Our mistakes cost us dearly.”

All five goals were scored during a wild second half in Jeddah that began with Koke putting Atletico in front, just 21 seconds after coming on as a substitute at the interval.

Goals from Messi and Antoine Griezmann turned the game on its head, only for Atletico to hit back with a late double, Alvaro Morata converting a penalty in the 81st minute before Angel Correa found a winner in the 86th.

In between, Barcelona also had two goals ruled out after VAR spotted tight offsides while Atleti were denied what looked a clear penalty at 2-2, after the ball clipped the hand of Gerard Pique.

“They had more legs than us and in the end it cost us,” said Griezmann.

“We made mistakes in everything, in passes – I think I missed a pass to Sam (Umtiti) before they scored – and the little things can lose you a match, a league, a Champions League.”

A pulsating contest will have delighted the Spanish Football Federation, who have faced heavy criticism for taking the competition away from Spain to a different continent, and a country that has a long-condemned record on human rights.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said on Wednesday he preferred the old format but his strong team selection, that included Messi, Griezmann and Luis Suarez, suggested this was a tournament he was eager to win.

“The goal for 2-2 came at a time when we didn’t know how to get a hold of the game,” said Valverde, whose position will come under renewed scrutiny.

‘Instability’

“There is always instability when you lose,” he added.

It remains to be seen how this defeat might affect the La Liga title race, with Real Madrid and Atletico now enjoying the opportunity not only to claim a trophy but score a psychological boost too.

“It is important for the club, we beat the best-attacking team in the world,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “You saw our bite, our belief, our desire. It’s what this club is all about.”

Atletico survived a frantic first half and frustration spilled over at the break as Jordi Alba poked a finger in the face of Joao Felix, who then went head-to-head with Messi. Suarez also had to be pulled away by Stefan Savic.

A spikey end to the first period was trumped by an explosive start to the second as Koke, on for less than a minute, gave Atletico the lead by stabbing into the bottom corner.

Simeone chose not to celebrate and if he was worried about the amount of time left, he was right, as Barcelona scored twice in 11 minutes.

First, Messi equalised after muscling his way through Koke and Savic on the edge of the area and then he fired in again after steering a high ball around Koke. This time, however, VAR showed his elbow had served as a cushion.

The disappointment was brief as Alba crossed for Suarez and while his header was brilliant pawed away by Jan Oblak, Griezmann nodded in the rebound.

Pique thought he had a third after Arturo Vidal half-volleyed Messi’s free-kick across the box but again VAR intervened.

Atletico came again. Correa should have pulled them level but appeared keener to find Felix than shoot himself and when the rebound did fall to the Felix, Sergi Roberto made a last-ditch block.

But the floodgates had opened in the Barca defence. Vitolo was next to go clear and this time he was brought down by Neto. Morata converted the penalty.

Then, Morata skipped free down the right and his cross struck the dangling hand of Pique but despite damning replays, the referee decided against giving another spot-kick.

Yet moments later, Atletico were in again. Correa this time sprinted in behind and while Neto made a block, the ball had just enough power to cross the line. Now, Simeone could celebrate.

Bale Says He Gets More Enjoyment From Wales Than Real Madrid

Wales’ forward Gareth Bale poses before the Euro 2020 football qualification match between Slovakia and Wales in Trnava on October 10, 2019. VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP

 

Gareth Bale has risked fuelling the criticism of his commitment to Real Madrid by admitting on Friday he is more excited playing for Wales than for the Spanish giants.

Bale has not featured for Real since scoring in his country’s 1-1 draw against Croatia on October 13 and a calf injury has prevented him from even training with his club’s first-team squad.

So his decision to join up with Wales for their final Euro 2020 qualifiers against Azerbaijan in Baku on Saturday and Hungary on Tuesday has drawn negative comments in the Spanish press.

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“I definitely have more excitement playing for Wales,” Bale said at a press conference in Baku.

“I’ve been with most of the older players since we were in the Under-17s. It’s like playing with your mates down the park on a Sunday. It’s normal.

“With Wales, I’m speaking my own language and feel more comfortable. But it doesn’t change what I do on the pitch. I always give 100 percent on the pitch wherever I am, that’s what I always strive to do.”

Former Real players and the media regularly accuse Bale of putting his love of golf before the club.

“I find it hilarious, to be honest, especially some of the pictures and stuff my friends send me,” Bale said.

“On one it said triple bogey – and I’ve never had a triple bogey! At least give me an albatross! It’s funny.

“Some of the things I have seen, people don’t understand and don’t know what they’re on about. So I just find it quite funny.”

To have a chance of qualifying for their second successive European Championship, Wales probably need to win both games.

Bale said he wasn’t sure he would play the whole of both matches but defended his return to action in time for the Wales matches.

“I’ve done as much as I can in terms of trying to get back as quick as I can.

“If there had been a Real Madrid game this week, I would’ve been fit and training to play. Maybe to them, it doesn’t look great, but it’s just a kind of coincidence that the national team comes around this week.”

How Messi’s Dead-Ball Hat-Trick Put Barca Back On Top

 

Lionel Messi delivered an incredible dead-ball hat-trick on Saturday to steer Barcelona to a 4-1 victory over Celta Vigo and ease the pressure on his coach Ernesto Valverde.

Messi scored with a penalty and then a pair of sumptuous free-kicks either side of half-time after Lucas Olaza had briefly pulled Celta level with a free-kick of his own at Camp Nou. Sergio Busquets drove home to make sure of the win late on.

A 34th treble in La Liga puts Messi equal with Cristiano Ronaldo, while a much-needed win sends Barca above Real Madrid on goal difference and back to the top of the table at the end of a testing week.

“It is impossible not to depend on Messi, he illuminates everything,” said Valverde. “We depend on him like any team would depend on him. He unlocked the game.”

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Madrid had briefly claimed first place after continuing their own goal-surge by hammering Eibar 4-0, a game in which Karim Benzema scored twice and Eden Hazard exploded into life.

But while Madrid appear to be hitting their stride, Barcelona’s momentum had stalled. After losing to Levante and failing to break down Slavia Prague in the Champions League, scrutiny had again turned on Valverde and his future as Barcelona coach.

Barcelona’s disgruntled fans had whistled their team against Slavia in midweek and when Olaza equalised for Celta, that tension and restlessness threatened to return.

Instead, Messi took command, this hat-trick taking his tally to nine goals in seven games, 612 in total for his club.

“Obviously when it’s tight we have the advantage of having the best player in the world and the best free-kick taker in the world,” said Busquets.

Yet his precision from free-kicks is a skill the 32-year-old has worked on and improved in recent years, his conversion rate currently at four goals from his last seven attempts in the league.

The last time a player scored a hat-trick from set-pieces in La Liga was when Messi himself achieved the same feat in 2012 against Espanyol, albeit with two penalties and one free-kick.

There was good news for Barcelona too in the return of Luis Suarez, who came off the bench after recovering from a calf strain.

Messi scored his penalty in the 23rd minute after Joseph Aidoo had blocked Nelson Semedo’s cross with his hand.

It was Messi that conceded the foul for Olaza’s curling free-kick that was well-hit enough to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen, even if the goalkeeper might have been disappointed not to be able to get across.

There was little Celta keeper Ruben Blanco could do about Messi’s efforts, the first in stoppage time before the interval and the second three minutes after the restart.

They were almost carbon copies of each other, bending over the wall and nestling in the top right-hand corner.

Celta, under their new coach Oscar Garcia, never looked like mounting a comeback and Busquets put the result beyond doubt with a low shot five minutes from the finish.

Real’s players might have been watching on their way home from Ipurua, where they went three up inside 29 minutes, Sergio Ramos scoring a penalty between two Benzema strikes, the second also a spot-kick after Ramos delegated to his teammate. Fede Valverde added a fourth in the second half.

Benzema’s double takes him to 157 goals for Real Madrid, above Ferenc Puskas into sixth in the club’s all-time list, but his excellent display was trumped by a creative masterclass from Hazard.

“His first half was very impressive,” said coach Zinedine Zidane. “We are happy and he will be a huge player for Madrid, for sure.”

Hazard’s vintage performance

Benzema latched onto Hazard’s pass in the 17th minute and after Valverde and Luka Modric missed, the ball spilled back to the Frenchman, who found the corner from an acute angle.

Three minutes later it was two, Hazard the creator again, his feet too quick for Pablo De Blasis, who caught his opponent’s right leg. Ramos slid the penalty home.

Hazard sparkled, with a brilliant nutmeg, a ‘rabona’ cross and too many glides past defenders to count.

Ramos passed on the second Madrid penalty, awarded for a foul on Lucas Vazquez, to allow Benzema to make it three before Valverde had added a fourth, cracking in Modric’s pass for his first goal in La Liga.