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.

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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.

Antoine Griezmann Signs For Barcelona

 

Barcelona announced the signing of Antoine Griezmann on Friday after the Spanish champions paid La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid the 120 million euro ($135 million) release clause required to sign the World Cup winner.

“The player will sign a contract with his new club for the next five seasons, through to 30 June 2024, with a buyout clause of 800 million euros,” Barca said in a statement.

Friday’s announcement brings to an end a dispute between the two clubs and Griezmann, who had long aimed to move to the Catalan giants.

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The 28-year-old failed to show up for his side’s pre-season gathering on Sunday after he had announced in May he would be leaving the Wanda Metropolitano, even though he could not reveal his destination until his release clause dropped from 200 million euros to 120 million euros at the start of the month.

last week Atletico accused Barcelona and Griezmann of a “lack of respect” after the Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu revealed the two clubs had held talks about the former Real Sociedad forward.

Atletico also claimed that Griezmann had told the club that he had struck a deal with Barcelona in March, just days before the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Juventus, which saw them dumped out by a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick after winning the first leg 2-0 in Madrid.

Griezmann joined Atletico in 2014 and has scored 133 goals in 257 appearances, lifting the Europa League in 2018.

He finished top scorer at Euro 2016 when France were beaten in the final on home soil by Portugal before helping to guide his team to World Cup triumph in Russia last year.

AFP