Juventus were twice in the lead this evening, but Chelsea battled back to secure a 2-2 draw, maintaining Guus Hiddink's unbeaten streak, and securing the Blues' name in the pot for the quarter-finals of the Champions League... What attributes do Premier League representatives typically boast on the continental stage? Pace would presumably rank highly, precision would not be too far behind, relentless attacking threats would also be listed, as would hounding out the opposition, together with a tenacity and accurate playmaking passes from midfield. These, though, were all characteristics of Juventus' game during the opening swordsmanship of the concluding leg to their round of 16 Champions League clash with London outfit Chelsea. The visiting Blues struggled to deal with the Old Lady's acceleration and fast tempo and, in truth, they looked to be surprised by the tactic. Juventus' early pressure came from multiple outlets, but attacking left-back Cristian Molinaro in particular caused Chelsea's Jose Bosingwa numerous difficulties. The black and white striped team really took the game to their visitors. They were fired up and aided by their raucous and passionate fans who were relentless in their melodic chanting. However, without Momo Sissoko, there were always going to be questions about whether or not they could dominate for the full 90 minutes and, indeed, this scepticism was not unfounded. Juventus took the lead through Vincenzo Iaquinta who was thread a superb through ball from Frenchman David Trezeguet after a stunning chest-and-go movement. Iaquinta then sent the ball round Petr Cech from inside the area with an inswinging curling shot that was struck with finesse. Chelsea had a chance to equalise five minutes from half-time as Didier Drogba lined up a free kick and struck the dead-ball with such ferocity that Gigi Buffon was seen scrambling to the ball that looked suspiciously like it had already crossed the line, before the most expensive glovesman in the history of world football spooned the ball out over the line and play resumed. It was not to be the Blues' only chance though, and just moments from the break English international Frank Lampard sent a driven long-range effort toward goal that rebounded into the path of Michael Essien who, despite only recently returning from a long-term injury, showed great bravery in getting his foot to the ball, full in the knowledge that it was going to result in contact from Buffon. The ball trickled over the line though, and Chelsea had restored parity. The second-half started how the first-half ended, and Juve were the first to find joy after substitute Juliano Belletti was deemed to have blocked a Del Piero free kick with his hands, and referee Mallenco was quick to award a penalty despite a confusing, and lengthy, melee. The iconic Del Piero though lined up the spot kick, sent Cech the wrong way, coolly slotted the ball home, and the tie was alive again. Any optimism emanating from the home fans was to be short-lived, as Michael Ballack - who had looked to be a match-breaker on numerous occasions throughout the game - sent a pin-point low-level cross through to Didier Drogba, who made no mistake in lifting the ball over and around Buffon. Juve's chance of a revival could have been helped had the usually reliable Georgio Chiellini kept his head, and not received a second yellow and consequential dismissal midway through the second half, prior to the club's second goal. His preceding challenge was crisp, and he won the ball, so the second caution could only have been rewarded for his verbal reaction. It was a thrilling encounter, on an evening that spoilt neutral football fans considering results elsewhere.
Liverpool came from behind to hit four goals at Old Trafford and reduce the gap at the top of table on a miserable day for the champions who also had Nemanja Vidic sent off. After swatting aside Inter and Real Madrid in midweek, Manchester United and Liverpool renewed Premier League hostilities at Old Trafford. Both sides made changes for the hotly-anticipated clash, Carlos Tevez replacing Dimitar Berbatov for the champions who also included Anderson and Park Ji-Sung in their starting line-up at the expense of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Liverpool, meanwhile brought in Lucas Leiva for the injured Xabi Alonso and were also forced into a late change with Sami Hypia coming in for Alvaro Arbeloa after the Spaniard suffered a hamstring injury in the warm-up. United began the game brightly and with only three minutes on the clock had opened up Rafael Benitez’s side. Carlos Tevez out on the right squared a ball to Park inside the box who looked to shoot but his effort was blocked and flew over the bar after a vital challenge by Jamie Carragher. After a slow start Liverpool quickly warmed to their task with skipper Steven Gerrard once again urging his side forwards. With only 10 minutes gone the skipper burst inside the box before trying to cut inside Nemanja Vidic but the Serbian did well to deny him sight of Van der Sar’s goal and clear the danger. Yet Liverpool’s other talisman Fernando Torres was also causing problems in the usually unflappable United defence. The Spaniard showed superb skill to turn inside Rio Ferdinand and weave into the box but he needed an extra touch to surge past John O’Shea which just allowed Vidic to clear. A game that had been slow to get going was beginning to warm up nicely and mid-way through the first-half Old Trafford saw its first goal. A super ball by Tevez inside Carragher and Hypia found Park inside the box. The Korean latched onto the ball but Reina came out quickly to deny the United man but only succeeded in bringing him down and conceding a penalty. Up stepped Cristiano Ronaldo who calmly slotted his kick past the Liverpool keeper to hand his side the lead. The goal filled the home side with confidence but it was short-lived as a mistake by none other than Nemanja Vidic ensured that United’s advantage lasted only five minutes. A long ball up field by Martin Skrtel was badly misjudged by the centre-back who allowed the ball to bounce over his head. Facing his own goal the Serbian was then beaten to the ball by Torres who advanced on goal before slipping the ball effortlessly past Van der Sar. United looked stunned but were quickly back in action at the other end as they sought to re-establish their lead. Tevez almost profited from a moment of indecision from Reina, after the Spaniard fumbled a Ronaldo free kick, before Michael Carrick thrashed a shot inches over the bar. Yet at the other end Torres was looking a real threat for the Reds and only minutes before half-time there was to be even more drama in an already action-packed first period. A splendid ball from Torres into the United box saw Patrice Evra upend Gerrard and once again referee Alan Wiley showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Skipper Gerrard dusted himself down to take the kick and planted it past Van der Sar to hand the Reds a priceless lead at the interval. A grim-faced United emerged from the break and within minutes had hit the post. A right-wing cross from Ronaldo took a deflection and Reina could only watch as it rattled his near post before grabbing it gratefully. Ten minutes later and a Tevez cross again had Reina struggling before, back-pedalling, he just managed to tip it over his bar. United were dominant and were only inches away from grabbing an equaliser on the hour mark. A Ronaldo cross to the far post found Rooney guiding the ball back to Tevez right in front of goal but Skrtel did just enough to deny the striker from close range. Yet in truth United were struggling to penetrate a Liverpool side happy to defend their lead and, with time ticking away, Sir Alex made a triple substitution sending on Berbatov, Giggs and Scholes for Anderson, Carrick and Park. However, minutes after the substitution and Manchester United found themselves down to 10-men after Vidic was sent off for hauling back Gerrard as he surged goal wards. From the resulting free-kick Fabio Aurelio lifted a brilliant effort over the wall and low into the corner of Van der Sar’s goal to seal victory. Yet there was still time for even more joy for the visiting side. Another long ball forward found substitute Andrea Dossena lifting a neat finish over Van der Sar as United shipped four goals on a day their lead at the top was also cut to just four points.
Bojan Krkic scored twice to put Barcelona six points clear at the top of the table again as the Catalans produced a domineering display to see off the challenge of Almeria. Barcelona moved six points clear of Real Madrid again as they beat Almeria thanks to two goals from Bojan Krkic in a match that they could have seen them win by far more. The young striker netted his brace in the second half as the Blaugrana raised their game in the Mediterraneo to enjoy añlmost total domination in the opening few minutes after the break. Pep Guardiola was confident enough that morale has returned to his team after their recent blip that he opted to give Bojan a starting place while Samuel Eto'o began on the bench. Sitting next to the Cameroonian international was Thierry Henry as Andres Iniesta was employed on the left up front and Seydou Keita slotted into midfield to add some bite alongside Toure Yaya. Real Madrid may have been hoping that Barça would slip up as they looked for a boost following their Champions League exit, but they were to be disappointed as the visitors were at their best. Almeria occasionally looked to cause them concern at the back, but Xavi was given far too much time, while Daniel Alves rampaged up and down the right flank to great effect. In the tenth minute the hosts keeper, Diego Alves, was called into action as he made a superb stop to deny Keita after the Mali international aimed for goal from 12 yards out. The hosts had their chances too in a first half where Barcelona did not fire on all cylinders and the best opening came in the 33rd minute as the tireless Crusat tested Victor Valdes. Moments later Acasiete had to perform heroics at the other end as he prevented Messi from opening the scoring and as half-time approached Diego Alves made two superb stops to deny Iniesta and then Gerard Pique. Carles Puyol was also missing from the Barça defence, after he added his name to a list that already includes Eric Abidal and Gaby Milito, but the visitors' back four rarely looked troubled. Whatever Guardiola said at the beak worked as seven minutes in the first goal came when Iniesta found Messi, he cut across Acasiete before striking the post with a low drive and Bojan pounced on the rebound to slide the ball into the net. Almeria must have known then that they were up against it, but three minutes later the game appeared to be up as a contest when Bojan netted his, and the visitors, second of the evening. While the finish may have deflected in, the move to create the goal was sublime as Alves advanced towards the area before finding Messi, who in turn back-heeled to Iniesta, he flicked back to Alves and the Brazilian found Bojan. The youngster was able to dummy a shot before taking aim and enjoyed some fortune as the ball hit Acasiete and wrong-footed the hapless Diego Alves in the Almeria goal That goal gave Barcelona some space and allowed Guardiola to make changes as Eto'o entered the fray before Eidur Gudjohnsen and Aliaksandr Hleb were also given a run out. While Barcleona dominated possession they were unable to create many more chances, but the job was already done and Madrid will have to try again next week.
We have a title race: Manchester United have lost consecutive league games to allow Liverpool and Chelsea a glimpse of the top of the table. Murphy and Gera netted the strikes to give Fulham the win over nine-man United... Fulham had not won against United here since 1964, and against a frustrated rival, executed their gameplan to perfection to stop the rot. Home form, a boon earlier in the season, had begun to wobble of late but this result will augment the Cottagers' European hopes. Fulham triumphed thanks to a first-half Danny Murphy penalty and a goal on the break by Zoltan Gera with two minutes to play. Each goal brought a United dismissal; Paul Scholes was sent off prior to the Murphy penalty for handling, while Wayne Rooney blew his top in the wake of Gera's clincher. There were off-days for Ronaldo, Berbatov and company, and despite battering Fulham for large swathes of the second half, Manchester United fell. Not a good day at the office for Sir Alex. It may be, for him at least, squeaky bum time. *First Half* Sir Alex Ferguson shuffled his deck, making some alterations to the side that lost to Liverpool last weekend; Dimitar Berbatov replaced Wayne Rooney in an attacking capacity for the visitors in one of their more noteworthy changes, but it was Ferguson stalwart Scholes who was to be the chief protagonist in the first period. Fulham, for their part, named the same XI that won at Bolton Wanderers last week and started on the front foot. Clint Dempsey went close early on with a drive, before United had a decent chance of their own. Patrice Evra, booked for diving at the end of the half, crossed from the left but Berbatov couldn't direct his header on the target. The hosts maintained control of the game, dictated the pace in the opening stages and made United uncomfortable on a ground on which they triumphed 4-0 only a fortnight ago. Bobby Zamora had a clutch of first half chances, but couldn't convert. He sent the first of a few speculative drives wide on the quarter-hour. Fulham's early dominance was rewarded as soon as the 17th minute, when the Cottagers were given a penalty and Ferguson's side reduced to ten men. Simon Davies fired in a corner, which was flicked on by Zamora. His effort prompted a handball on the line by Paul Scholes, who was shown the red card. Danny Murphy, not for the first time in his career, netted a penalty against the Red Devils. The northern side failed to rouse themselves and were lucky not to be two-down on 20 minutes when Van der Sar saved from Zamora. Zamora was again repelled by the occupied Dutchman before Dempsey stuck narrowly wide on the half-hour, as United continued to be sub-par. Dickson Etuhu, from a Dempsey cross, made Van der Sar work again; Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans could not get to grips with their adversaries. Zamora, one of the more prominent first half performers, then unleashed a vicious strike, which was well-fielded by Van der Sar. The champions went in at half-time a shadow of their selves; their game was blighted by a lack of responsibility and a palpable crisis of confidence in possession. *Second Half* No doubt on the end of the hairdryer treatment at half-time, it was a vastly improved Manchester United that appeared after the break. Park Ji Sung fired narrowly over immediately, as the world champions attempted to gain parity. United dictated the second half tempo, but with their new-found attacking instincts now functioning, there remained the danger of a counterattack. Nonetheless, a Ronaldo header, from Darren Fletcher's cross served to remind the Londoners who they were dealing with. Just wide on that occasion. A Zamora shot, from an unlikely angle, alleviated the Fulham pressure and gave United a jitter before Rooney fed Ronaldo to shoot straight at Schwarzer on the hour. Fletcher was next to try his luck, before a combination of Rooney and Ronaldo almost prised Hodgson's side open. The Scouser crossed from the right and Ronaldo, frustrated to the point of a booking, could only direct his header at Australia's number 1. The custodian had to be on full alert moments later, pulling off an incredible pair of saves to protect Fulham's clean sheet. Park fired from close range and was denied; Rooney's follow up was shut out by Schwarzer in stunning fashion. The wave of pressure never let up; Ferdinand, as well as Ronaldo and Rooney had another chance apiece as the game ebbed towards the last 15 minutes. However, that threat of a counterattack ultimately outdid the Champions League holders. Pouring forward, Ferguson's side were caught by Andy Johnson running down the right with only two minutes on the clock. The Red Devils had scant cover when Johnson sent the cross over. Substitute Zoltan Gera was well placed in the box to control and fire an overhead shot into the corner to sink United. Wayne Rooney's temper then further agonised Sir Alex; throwing the ball away, the England forward was handed a second yellow card to reduce his side to nine men. Facing fixtures with their cushion at the top eroded away is one thing, doing so without Nemanja Vidic, Scholes and Rooney is quite another.****
The coach does not understand all the rumours about players leaving or joining Barcelona. Pep Guardiola has called for the press to show more respect to his Barcelona side regarding transfer rumours and to avoid talking about the will he, won't he intentions of Samuel Eto'o in particular. The Cameroonian international has been reported to be leaving the Camp Nou this summer and various other players have been put forward to replace him. Speaking to Marca, Guardiola said that the striker should not be treated this way, demanding "respect for Eto'o, a player who has given so much for Barcelona and of who only has possible replacements." "He does not deserve this, his future will be decided when it is. There are players here who are doing a lot to try and stay here. The day that we sign someone,, you can publish it, but not now," he said. "You do not know how the negotiations work and this is where they mess it up. You do not know what players have been contacted nor what decisions are been made. Out of respect to players who have been here six months or fifteen years, do not speak about it." Guardiola went on to say that he would understand the rumours more if his team were playing badly, but that is clearly not the case. "I can understand the rumours when a team is playing badly, but the way we are playing, I do not understand it," he mused. "During the week I have heard that we will have a new front three next year and that we have already signed [Franck] Ribery." The coach also spoke about his decision to not allow Rafael Marquez to go and play with Mexico, as the defender is suspended. "If he is suspended, why does he have to go?" he began. "It is my decision; it is better that he stays here and rests. It would not make sense for him to make the trip and not to play." Barcelona entertain Malaga on Sunday evening... Tonight.
Lionel Messi and Xavi were among the stars as Barcelona fired no fewer than six goals past helpless Malaga... Another fantastic display from Barcelona put all talk of a crisis in Catalonia well and truly in the past as high-flying Malaga were sent home with the sound of six sets of cheers ringing in the ears. From the outset the Boquerones were on the back foot, attempting deep defending and counter play against Barcelona, but such spells of possession for the hosts merely served to provide goals. The first came as early as the The first fifteen minutes brought no fewer than four gilt-edged chances, but in fact the initial strike arrived in the 18th. In an interesting piece of role-reversal, Samuel Eto'o turned provider as he slotted a through ball to Xavi, who muscled off Rosario and netted. Lionel Messi was next in line with a typical piece of magic. The diminutive Argentine pulled off a wonderful solo run through the box before firing into the roof of the net with his right foot, as opposed to his regular left. A source of concern for the home support followed as Yaya Toure left the pitch with injury to be replaced by Seydou Keita, but things did not slow down on the goal front: Xavi set up Thierry Henry with a defence-splitting through pass, the Frenchman rounding the 'keeper and rolling the ball home on the half hour mark for a third. Malaga were having trouble keeping it respectable in the 43rd minute as Samuel Eto'o ended his recent goal drought, Xavi once again serving as playmaker for the Cameroonian to finish with accurate aplomb. Home coach Pep Guardiola would have been encouraged with the attacking play on show - even Sylvinho was getting in on the act with surging runs and the odd nutmeg - and Dani Alves was next to impress in the 50th minute with an absolutely lovely chip following a pass of tremendous vision from Andres Iniesta 40 yards from goal. The audacity of both the through ball and the finish will linger long in the memory: the airborne trajectory of both could not have been planned better by a NASA computer. Barcelona were averaging over a goal every ten minutes by the time Samuel Eto'o added a sixth, an open-goal finish after Thierry Henry unselfishly squared the ball his way as Goitia palmed Sylvinho's drive in his direction. Malaga, perversely, were more adventurous by this time, and to their credit they had realised that their earlier gameplan was all wrong, resulting in a bit more possession play and slightly less deer-in-headlights action. But the Blaugrana still had the best of the chances in the closing stages, substitute Bojan - on for Xavi in the 66th minute - bringing out a great save in Goitia right at the end.
The visitors led through Rodriguez before goals from Rooney and Tevez turned the game into Manchester United's favour. However, Mariano Gonzalez had the last say. *First Half:* It took some time for the real Manchester United to stand up as the defending champions started as a pale shadow of their usual selves. United did not register a strike on target until after the ten minute mark, by which time Porto had made Edwin van der Sar work twice and pick the ball out of the net once. After only two minutes, Lisandro Lopez turned Jonny Evans and tried van der Sar from distance, earning a corner. Porto's second effort, two minutes later, yielded a deserved goal. Cristiano Ronaldo misplaced a pass while clearing a corner; the resulting cross saw Evans surrender his clearance to Cristian Rodriguez, who made no mistake. The Uruguayan buried a left-footer into the United bottom corner - the first goal conceded in this competition by van der Sar since last season's final. Lisandro had another shot sting the palms of van der Sar following more sloppy defending, before United gradually got going, shaking the shackles of a uncharacteristically sloppy start. Twelve minutes in and John O'Shea crossed sumptuously for Ronaldo to force Helton to work, and show Porto they were actually in a game. United were level moments later after a fatal error from Bruno Alves. Under no pressure, the Portugal defender laid a back pass towards Helton but failed to spot Wayne Rooney behind him, who cleverly anticipated the ball through. He bid his time and chipped over the goalkeeper for parity. Nonetheless, Porto stuck to their task; Lucho Gonzalez took a hold of proceedings temporarily too; he provided two good crosses in the space of a minute for Rodriguez, who headed at van der Sar, and Lisandro, who narrowly failed to make contact at the back post. Rui Meireles was next to examine the credentials of van der Sar with a fine long range drive, and O'Shea's mistake allowed Hulk to bend the ball narrowly past the post on the half hour. From there, it was United on top; Rooney used the length and breadth of Old Trafford to try and get things going. Paul Scholes too, was beginning to exercise a semblance of authority with his passing. United's best chance of the remainder fell to the veteran also; his header from Park's cross was just over the top. *Second Half:* United started the better side after the break, enjoying a good deal more possession than they did in the previous 45 minutes. It took only five minutes for the hosts to trouble Helton, when Park Ji Sung's half-volley from the edge of the box forced the Brazilian to save. Rooney was next to try his luck as Porto struggled to find a way out of their own half; the mercurial England forward executed a clever chip from an improbable angle outside the box, but Helton backtracked and tipped over. From Ryan Giggs' corner, Nemanja Vidic made Helton work to give Giggs another chance to cross. From his second bite of the cherry, the Serb nodded off target. Porto maintained their positivity and broke with relish whenever possible. Fernando exercised a discreet dominance in the centre of midfield while Cristian Rodriguez was becoming a linchpin, easing his side into enemy territory. He provided a chance for Hulk, who squeezed a shot wide after turning Evans. Rodriguez then found Lisandro on the edge of the box, whose on-target effort forced United to concede a corner. Aly Cissokho picked up the rebound and struck powerfully on van der Sar's goal. The Portuguese league leaders then had a legitimate call for a penalty; Hulk tricked Evra and escaped to the byline, as he tried to turn back into play, he was swept into the air by Carlos Tevez but no decision was forthcoming. As the game ebbed towards the last 15 minutes, the Red Devils had a great chance to sneak a lead on the night; Gary Neville provided an accurate cross, with which Rooney was inches away from making contact. The hosts ramped it up a notch and another inspired substitution gave Sir Alex Ferguson's side the advantage on the night. Gary Neville's throw caught Porto napping in their own area, and Wayne Rooney's back-flick found Carlos Tevez in front of Rolando to smash home from close range. There was to be a twist in the tale though and more than a passing echo of 2004. Two minutes were on the clock when Lisandro jinked his way down Patrice Evra's flank, after the Portuguese side played themselves again into an attacking position. His back post cross found substitute Mariano Gonzalez, who bundled past van der Sar from close range. Ryan Giggs' late free-kick whistled over the bar as United now contemplate a task achieved by no English side - winning in the Estadio Dragao.****
The Togo international showed all of his class to hook home a spectacular overhead kick, handing Arsenal a 1-1 draw and leaving Villarreal frustrated. *First Half* Manuel Pellegrini resisted the temptation to give veteran Robert Pires a starting slot against his former employers, instead opting for the fit again Cani and former Mallorca playmaker Ariel Ibagaza on the flanks to deliver to Giuseppi Rossi and Joseba Llorente up front. Arsene Wenger meanwhile in the absence of Robin van Persie to injury and Andrey Arshavin as a result of his participation with Zenit St Petersburg, opted for a five man midfield. Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri were given the task of supporting lone frontman Emmanuel Adebayor. It was the Spaniards who started with a flourish. Gonzalo could, and perhaps should have nodded the home side in front after only two minutes, but could only direct the ball straight into the grateful arms of Almunia. But the breakthrough wasn’t long before Los Sumbarinos Amarillos made a truly stunning breakthrough, thanks to the inspirational Marcos Senna. The 32-year old knocked the ball a few feet in front at the edge of the area before unleashing a missile that exploded into Almunia’s net giving the Arsenal ‘keeper absolutely no hope. It was a wonderful goal. Arsene Wenger's side responded well to going behind though, and managed to get a foothold in the match. The pace of Walcott was proving to be a useful outlet as Fabregas looked to thread the young Englishman in on goal whenever possible. Soon after, Samir Nasri warmed the gloves of Diego Lopez with a snapshot low down, but the Uruguayan stopper exhibited sharp reactions to save well. But the Gunners’ resurgence was dealt a blow when Almunia, who had been involved in what appeared to be an innocuous clash with Rossi in the opening seconds, had suffered irreparable damage and had to be replaced by rookie Lukasz Fabianski. The 21-year old had only made 18 previous appearances for the first-team, but he was a given a rapid introduction to the fray as Senna drilled another powerful effort on goal. The young Pole though got down superbly to save, and as full-back Joan Capdevila steamrollered in to shoot, he blocked instinctively with his body to keep Villarreal at bay. Welcome to the Champions League, Lukasz. For such a critical match, it was an irrepressibly open affair, and as half-time approached Arsenal were thrown into disarray as William Gallas hobbled off clutching his hamstring to be replaced by Johann Djourou. Their injury woes had been compounded, and Villarreal smelled blood from a wounded opponent. Cani struck over from the edge of the box after good combination play from Rossi and Angel had fashioned the opening, and although no more goals were forthcoming before the break, coach Pellegrini took his troops to the dressing room safe in the knowledge that his team were far the better side in the opening 45 minutes. *Second Half* Mati Fernandez replaced Cani at the break as Villarreal prepared to chase what could potentially be a pivotal second goal. Arsenal meanwhile had to decide whether to stick or twist – be content with a one goal loss, and attempt to alter the focus of the tie by grabbing a priceless away goal. And it was the visitors who began with more purpose. Fabregas began to find more of the ball, and dictate the action in the way that Senna had did in the opening period. Adebayor met a Walcott cross with his head, but could only glance his effort wide, and then Nasri blew the opportunity to play in Walcott when his through pass was hopelessly over-hit. Villarreal simply hadn’t arrived from the dressing room after half-time, and it came as no surprise when the English side managed to level the match and secure that holy grail of European football, an away goal. If Senna’s blockbuster was special, then the equaliser from Emmanuel Adebayor was simply sublime. Captain Fabregas, who was outstanding in the second half, arrowed a 40 yard pass onto the chest of Adebayor, and the Togolese international showed every facet of his athleticism to control the ball and deliver an unstoppable scissor kick that flew into the corner of the net past the helpless Diego Lopez. It was a wonderful equaliser from a player who had spent most of the evening foraging on his own against four defenders. Arsenal were looking to make history; no English side has ever won at El Madrigal, but they sensed Villarreal’s apparent vulnerability since the break, and looked to exploit it with maximum effect. Samir Nasri rushed onto an intelligent knockdown from Adebayor, but could only drive his shot wide. Pellegrini knew his team were toiling, and introduced Pires into the action to attempt to retain possession to relieve some pressure. In a topsy-turvy, end-to-end match, it was Villarreal who finished the match the strongest. Marcos Senna unleashed another trademark piledriver, but his radar this time was inches out, then Mati Fernandez snaked through onto a pass from Senna but his cut back was slightly behind substitute Guille Franco and the Mexican could not convert. But try as either side might, a winning goal did not arrive, and a draw was ultimately a fair reflection on two attacking outfits who went all-out for the win. Arsenal will feel the more content with the final outcome.****
Barcelona took just 45 minutes to plant one foot in the semi-finals of the Champions League as they waltzed into the back of Bayern’s net four times to leave the Germans shell-shocked. The blockbuster showdown between the Champions League’s two highest scoring sides saw just one team turn up on the pitch as Barcelona utterly dominated their goal-happy German counterparts and gave them a true masterclass in attacking football. Bayern Munich may have smashed a dozen goals past Sporting CP in total in the previous round but they found themselves four down inside the first 45 minutes against a ruthless Blaugrana side. And one man in particular, Lionel Messi, stole the show, scoring twice, setting up one and creating another. *First Half* Barcelona, as expected, took the game to their visitors right from the start and they needed just five minutes to carve the Bayern defence apart. Dani Alves galloped upfield down the right and squared the ball to Xavi, who sprayed the ball forward on the edge of the box to Thierry Henry and the Frenchman comfortably rounded Hans-Jorg Butt but his tame sidefoot shot from a tight angle was cleared off the line by Martin Demichelis. But on eight minutes, the hosts went ahead. Again from another free flowing move, Henry played in Iniesta, who teed up Eto’o but the Cameroonian rolled the ball to an unmarked Lionel Messi on the left channel and the in-form Argentine took one touch to guide the ball into the box and clinically swept it past Butt with his left foot. Even before the Bavarians could regroup and catch their breath, Barca doubled their advantage four minutes later. And Messi returned the favour with an assist in an identical move to their first chance, except it was Eto’o who got to the end of the Argentine’s gorgeous through ball and the striker coolly nutmegged the on-rushing goalkeeper. The Camp Nou went berserk again on 17 minutes, but it wasn’t for a goal. Messi effortlessly shimmied past Christian Lell inside the box but he appeared to have been tripped by the left-back, but referee Howard Webb whipped the yellow card out for ‘El Mesias’ instead for simulation. Pep Guardiola went ballistic on the touchline and he was promptly banished from the dugout to the stands. And moments later, Bayern had their first real look-in at goal after 20 minutes when Franck Ribery floated in a free kick from the left and Victor Valdes came out to punch nervously, but his defenders were there to clear the threat. Right to the other end, Henry was released clean through on goal by Iniesta but the Frenchman just dragged his shot wide off-balance and ended up colliding studs with Butt. The game went into a lull after that as the German giants started to ease their way into the contest and Barca were limited to long range attempts. But completely against the run of play, the Catalan behemoths went three up in the 37th minute. It was simpler move this time as Henry darted past Massimo Oddo on the left before squaring it to Messi and ‘Little Lionel’, surrounded by three, beat Butt to the ball at the near post to stab it home for his eighth goal of the competition. Straight from the restart, Die Roten produced their first shot on target when Bastian Schweinsteiger thumped in a fierce drive inside the area on the left channel but Valdes dived low to his right to make sure he wasn’t beaten at his near post. Just as Bayern were starting to threaten, the Blaugrana made it 4-0 on 43 minutes. Messi played a one-two with Alves to open space for himself to cut into the middle but he was swamped by a crowd of Bayern defenders who bullied him off the ball, but it somehow squirmed to Henry and the ex-Arsenal forward coolly dispatched it past a static Butt. Right on the stroke of half-time, Ribery had the best chance for the visitors when he was released through on goal but with only Valdes to beat, he pulled his shot wide across the goalmouth. But a minute into first-half injury time, Barca almost made it five when Alves drilled in a low cross but it bounced off Henry at the far post and dropped for an unaware Iniesta, who thumped in a hasty volley wide. *Second Half* Barcelona made no attempts to take their foot off the pedal. Although they were more subdued and patient in their attacks, they still managed to pin Bayern back for large periods. The first real chance of the second period fell, predictably to Messi, who swivelled infield from the right and unleashed a low left-footed piledriver on the edge of the box only for Butt to slap it away. Eto’o then took a shot from distance just on the hour mark despite having acres of space to run at and he blazed his effort well over the bar. Guardiola’s men did eventually start to gradually downshift their gears to conserve energy as the clock ticked down, but more worryingly for Jurgen Klinsmann, his troops failed to look any more dangerous. They did create one opening, though, on 70 minutes when Ze Roberto was put through on goal by Ribery but as he pulled the trigger from six yards out, Carles Puyol lunged forward with a superb last-ditch tackle to block the shot. That sprung Barca to life and they swiftly went into assault mode again. Iniesta glided down the left flank before scooping the ball over the Bayern backline for Eto’o but it was just a touch too heavy. Moments later, Iniesta waltz into the box and jinked in between two defenders but his dipping shot aiming for the top left corner just shaved the crossbar. Messi almost nabbed his hat-trick a minute into injury time when Iniesta jogged past a throng of defenders to the byline before clipping a cross to the middle for the Argentine, but his half-hearted shot was blocked by his own team-mate, Seydou Keita. That, however, was barely enough to dishearten the jubilant Camp Nou. The only blemish for the home side was defender Rafa Marquez’s yellow card in the final minutes as the booking will force him to sit out the return leg at the Allianz Arena next week. For the Bavarians, this is their heaviest defeat in the Champions League in their storied history.****
Barcelona were at their brilliant best this evening as they moved seven points clear at the top of La Primera by thrashing their nearest rivals on Madrid's home patch... Barcelona humiliated Real Madrid at the Bernabeu this evening to move seven points clear at the top of La Primera Division with four games to play. In a frenetic encounter, featuring eight goals, the Catalans outclassed their opponents in a terrific display of attacking football and could easily have had more goals than the six they scored. After going behind early to a Gonzalo Higuain header they responded well and within seven minutes found themselves in front. First Thierry Henry passed the ball around Iker Casillas and then with twenty minutes on the clock, Carles Puyol found himself unmarked from a free-kick to head into the net. The Catalans were not about to stop at 2-1 either and they continued to push forward, forcing Casillas to make a few more saves before a Lassana Diarra mistake saw Lionel Messi add a third. Madrid hit back soon after the break as yet another free-kick resulted in a goal, this time with Sergio Ramos heading home at the back post. Henry scored his second soon afterwards, though, to secure the win. Later, Messi added another with a superb goal, before Gerard Pique got on the scoresheet after tapping home from close range. The win puts Barcelona within touching distance of the Primera title and means that Madrid's season is all but over with four games left. With both coaches deciding to go for their strongest teams from the start, it was little surprise that the match started at a frantic pace. Within the first minute Sergio Ramos had clumsily passed straight to Messi, who found Xavi, only for Iker Casillas to save his shot from outside the box. That chance set the tone for the early stages though as Arjen Robben darted through the Barcelona defence a couple of times and Messi set up Eto'o for the striker to disappointingly shoot straight at the 'keeper. The visitors looked the more likely to score but it was Madrid who sent the Bernabeu wild by taking the lead, as Ramos shook off Eric Abidal to cross straight to Higuain who, completley unmarked, headed past Victor Valdes. It was the perfect start for the home team but, within seven minutes of the goal, they found themselves behind. First, Messi chipped a delightful ball over Ramos to Henry, who slotted past Casillas with his right foot, and then, on the 20 minute mark, Fabio Cannavaro conceded a needless free-kick on the left flank, which was subsequently whipped in for Puyol to head home. It was a frantic start to the match and the pace was unrelenting as Robben's shot was saved by Valdes and then Daniel Alves forced his 'keeper to make another block as he nearly scored an own goal. It was Barcelona who looked the more dangerous though as Casillas had to save from Messi from close range and then watch as the Argentine struck a shot just wide of the post. The space allowed to Barcelona had to tell soon and just after the half hour mark it did, as Xavi stole the ball from Lassana Diarra and passed in Messi, who finished past the 'keeper to make it three. Even Alves nearly got in on the act as he hit a free-kick on target for once and forced Casillas to palm away, just before the interval. After the break it was the same story too, as Barcelona continued to look threatening, Henry beating Ramos with ease on the left before winning a corner that was eventually cleared. Only Robben looked dangerous for the home side but he resorted to going to ground easily rather than try to beat Puyol on the flank. Yet again though, Madrid scored against the run of play and, yet again, it was thanks to some poor marking from Barcelona. A free-kick on the right was whipped in by Robben and at the back post Ramos headed home past Valdes, to give the Bernabeu some hope with 35 minutes to go. Not long after Madrid thought they were back in the match though, Barcelona responded to score their fourth of the game. A delightful chip over the top from Xavi found Henry, who beat the on-rushing Casillas to the ball and tapped around him from the edge of the box to spark wild celebrations from the Catalans. With a two-goal lead, Barcelona began to slow the pace down, sending on Seydou Keita to replace Henry, but even without the Frenchman they grabbed a fifth. Some superb link-up play between Xavi and Messi resulted in the Spaniard fooling three defenders on the edge of the box and playing in his team-mate, who dummied before tapping inside Casillas' near post. The humiliation didn't stop there either, as Pique started a move on the half-way line by playing in Eto'o, and then was found in the box by the striker to tap home at the second attempt. The goal sparked a mass exodus in the Bernabeu and even the referee took pity on Madrid as he called full-time on the game with nearly no injury-time.
The hosts scored early at Stamford Bridge, and looked to be eliminating ten-man Barca until their hearts were broken in the dying moments... Ashley Cole returned from suspension for Chelsea, allowing Jose Bosingwa to revert to right-back at the expense of Branislav Ivanovic. Nicolas Anelka started again, virtually as a right winger, with Didier Drogba in the lone striker role. Barcelona, meanwhile, were defensively without the injured Rafael Marquez and the suspended Carles Puyol. Pep Guardiola brought in Sergi Busquets, playing Toure Yaya at the back alongside Gerard Pique. Perhaps most crucially, weekend hero Thierry Henry failed a late fitness test, so Seydou Keita was drafted in. *First Half* For practically the first ten minutes, as expected, Barcelona monopolised possession. However, their only proper foray into the Chelsea box was fruitless. Lionel Messi's ball took an incidental touch off the hand of Michael Ballack, before it was worked to Xavi. His shot took a deflection en route to Jose Bosingwa, who cleared practically off the line. The Blaugrana were looking to work the ball through the middle, always probing for an opening. After nine minutes, though, they were hit with a hammer-blow. Goalkeeper Petr Cech launched the ball upfield, and Florent Malouda ended up in possession via the head of Didier Drogba. Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole took over, with the former's attempted cross looping off Toure Yaya. Michael Essien saw it fall from the air and smashed a glorious left-foot volley in off the underside of the crossbar. There would be no penalties, with the game now to be decided within the following 80 or so minutes. Barcelona continued to dominate with their passing game, but they still couldn't make an impact in the final third. Dani Alves thumped a free-kick wide after 20 minutes, but that was the sum total and the hosts tried to double their advantage midway through the half. Drogba was really putting the pressure on the visiting rearguard, trying to force errors. As he was prowling around, Frank Lampard eventually took possession and clipped a pass over the top, but 'keeper Victor Valdes was out quickly enough to block the Ivorian's effort. Soon after, Malouda scampered down the left and was wrestled to the ground by Alves right on the edge of the area. Drogba smashed for goal from an acute angle, and Valdes had to turn it out for a corner with his knee. As the ball was swung back in, John Terry headed across goal and the onrushing Alex was close to connecting. On 26 minutes, Drogba latched onto another through-ball and ended up on the deck under pressure from Eric Abidal. There may have been a slight tug inside the box, maybe some contact by the leg of the defender. Either way, it was debatable, and the officials weren't interested. Dani Alves then got himself into bother on the half-hour mark. He'd been in a bad mood from the off, and finally earned himself a fatal booking for a challenge on Ashley Cole, ruling himself out of the final were his side to progress. Chelsea were impressive in mopping up, Bosingwa very solid in particular, making it hard for Barcelona to make inroads. They did work a decent opportunity at the death, however: Gerard Pique charged through the middle, passing the baton to Messi. It was Xavi who ended up blasting for goal, though, only for his effort to be deflected wide. *Second Half* After the interval, the same pattern repeated itself: Barcelona seeing a lot of the ball, Chelsea looking to make the most of their occasional attacking flurries. First, Anelka played in Drogba, allowing the striker a chance to charge into the area, turning Pique superbly as he did so. However, not for the first time in the tie he couldn't find a way past Valdes, side-footing straight at him. From the rebound, Lampard's shot was blocked before Malouda rifled into the side-netting. It wasn't long before Drogba was on his way again. This time Toure Yaya stood up to the bullish striker, making him work hard to bypass him, before clearing the ball with a fabulous last-ditch tackle. Drogba wanted a penalty, but in truth the defending was perfection. Barca did have a decent chance through Keita, but he volleyed high over the top after Andres Iniesta and Messi saw their move break down. Messi also made himself a rare shooting opportunity, cutting in from the right and finishing over the bar. On 65 minutes, however, another Chelsea long ball resulted in disaster for the Catalan giants of Barcelona. Abidal was beaten for pace by Anelka, who cut across the defender and went to ground. There was contact, if minimal, as Anelka adjusted his position, and the referee decided to send Abidal for an early bath. The game actually opened up a little after the dismissal. Valdes had to get behind a Lampard drive at one end, before Alves again failed to work Cech from a dangerous set-piece situation. The counter-attacking Blues managed to fit in another two penalty claims in regulation time. Toure Yaya again found himself as the last man, faced by a charging Anelka, but he was strong once more as he marshalled the marauding forward. Then, Pique – soon after trundling wide at the other end – was at the centre of a handball appeal as Anelka desperately attempted to get round him. Referee Tom Henning Ovrebo was adamant that he wasn't going to give the Blues the benefit of the doubt on the night. In the second of four added minutes, Barcelona cancelled Chelsea's tickets to Rome. Essien's clearance was weak, Messi turned the ball to the edge of the box and Andres Iniesta mustered Barcelona's first shot on target of the evening. It was an absolute stunner, and the Spanish champions elect will play Manchester United in the Champions League final. Cue Pep Guardiola setting off on a Jose Mourinho-like dash down the touch-line. There was one more penalty appeal in injury time - the weakest of the bunch, but the one that sent the Blues over the edge. Ballack's shot smashed into Samuel Eto'o's upper arm from close range. He was incensed, and booked. As soon as the game ended after 97 minutes, the referee was surrounded by the Chelsea players, who refused to accept their fate without protesting.
Barcelona will win the league if they beat Villarreal, after Real Madrid were thrashed by Valencia... Real Madrid succumbed to a meek loss at the Mestalla, all but handing Barcelona the title in the process. Cesar continued in goal for Valencia, while Joaquin started on the right wing ahead of Pablo Hernandez. Real Madrid, meanwhile, brought Javi Garcia in for Lassanna Diarra, who was unwell. *First Half* Both these sides conceded nine between them last week, and the awful defending was on show from the start, with both sides creating openings straight from kick-off. There appeared to be acres in midfield, and Ruben Baraja nearly opened the scoring after five minutes, only to see his header from a David Villa cross saved on the line by Iker Casillas. To all intents and purposes, there was no midfield in this game, with both sides bombing forward at will. On 10 minutes, Sergio Ramos crossed from the right for Marcelo, but the Brazilian's right-footed shot was blocked by Raul Albiol. Valencia were perhaps seeing more of the ball, but Real Madrid, and Robben in particular, were especially dangerous on the counter. As the half wore on, Valencia began to assume control, with David Silva and Juan Mata on the left causing plenty of problems. It was the left flank that eventually provided the breakthrough, as Juan Mata came back to haunt his old club. Receiving the ball on the left wing, David Silva volleyed it in to Villa in the box, who put Mata through with a sublime pass. There was still a lot of work to do, but the youngster made it look easy with a powerful finish past Casillas from a tight angle. Real Madrid's defending was a shambles, and minutes after the first goal, Valencia launched a four-on-two attack, with Mata again at the centere of things. He found Villa to his right, but El Guaje's shot from just outside the box flew wide of the far post. The signs were ominous, and Valencia duly increased their lead minutes later. Picking the ball up on the left, David Silva rode forward mysteriously unchallenged, before unleashing a low shot towards Casillas' near post. It didn't appear to pose too much of a threat, but the keeper's faint touch was not enough to prevent the ball from trickling into the net. A rare mistake from the Real Madrid custodian, and the home team had a two-goal lead. Los Merengues showed no signs of improvement, as Valencia continued to press forward with ease. On the edge of half-time, Mata nearly bagged a second, but his shot from distance was tipped around the post by Casillas. Thus Valencia went into the break two goals ahead, with their only regret perhaps being that the margin was not greater. *Second Half* The second period started in similar fashion, with Valencia attacking down both wings without much opposition. On 48 minutes, Joaquin made a fool out of both Gabriel Heinze and Fernando Gago on the right before crossing to Villa, but the striker uncharacteristically blasted over from six yards out. The home side were toying with the visitors, and they nearly scored a spectacular goal on 55 minutes. Baraja played the ball in to Villa, who back-heeled the ball first time back into his path, but the midfielder could only blast well over the bar. David Silva was then withdrawn due to a minor knock, to be replaced by Michel. On the hour-mark, Juande Ramos made his first switch, introducing Rafael van der Vaart for the ineffective Javi Garcia. Unai Emery, meanwhile, took Joaquin off, and replaced him with Pablo Hernandez. Real Madrid were enjoying slightly more possession, but they still looked unlikely to create a goal at the end of it. Valencia were still looking dangerous on the break, and they were left wondering how they didn't have a third on 65 minutes, when Pablo Hernandez's cross sailed through the six-yard box without anyone getting a touch. They would not have to wait long though, as Ruben Baraja pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Receiving the ball on the right, Pablo Hernandez chipped a ball to Baraja just outside the box. To everyone's surprise, he unleashed an unstoppable left-footed volley to send the ball flying into the bottom corner of the net before Casillas had a chance to see it. It was the final blow to Real Madrid's chances in this match, and quite possibly the title race. The only matter left to be resolved was whether Valencia could add more goals to their tally, as they continued to push forward, seemingly at will. With fifteen minutes left, Juan Mata was withdrawn after a stellar night against his former club, as Vicente came on. The sub almost had an instant impact as he played a sublime through ball for Villa, but Christoph Metzelder got back in time to tackle just as the striker was shaping to shoot. Marcelo was then replaced by Royston Drenthe, mainly to ensure that the Brazilian didn't pick up a second yellow card, as he was threatening to do. On 86 minutes, Vicente nearly found the fourth, when his hopeful shot from the left was touched onto the post by Casillas, who was having a poor game. That proved to be the final chance of the game, as Valencia cruised to a 3-0 win. Barcelona, therefore, can now mathematically seal the title with a win against Villarreal tomorrow. Valencia, meanwhile, will hang on to fourth place for another week.
Barcelona came within seconds of winning La Liga but a late, late Villarreal goal forced them to put the champagne on ice… After the high drama at Chelsea in midweek in the Champions League, Barcelona had a chance to continue their wild celebrations in Catalunya well into next week. With their arch nemesis, Real Madrid stumbling at Valencia 24 hours earlier, the Blaugrana knew that they could officially wrap up the Primera Division title tonight infront of 90, 000-plus die-hards with a win against Villarreal. *First Half* The noise and celebrations at the Camp Nou pre-kick off was deafening as the fans continued to revel in their heroes’ success at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday. And on the pitch, Barca came out all guns blazing as usual, with Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves providing two teasing centres into the box in the opening 120 seconds but Diego Lopez was alert to the threat. Samuel Eto’o almost had the home crowd on their feet in the fifth minute when he sent his volley inches wide from six yard out after connecting with another delicious delivery from Dani. And four minutes later, Eric Abidal picked out Xavi with a brilliantly weighted cross right on the byline, but the playmaker’s half volley flashed just wide. But on 12 minutes, Barca deservedly rocketed ahead when Seydou Keita ran onto Abidal’s through ball and sprinted past Sebastian Eguren, before unleashing a left-foot shoot which took a wicked deflection off Gonzalo and looped over a stranded Diego Lopez. It was almost two in the 20th minute when Eto’o danced down the left and cut into the box before checking it back to Xavi, but his first time shot spun away wide. It took a slight deflection on the way out but a goal kick was given, and that lead to a surprise Villarreal equaliser which stunned the Camp Nou into silence. Yaya Toure was robbed off the ball in midfield and Ariel Ibagaza darted forward before sneaking a through ball to Giuseppe Rossi inside the box down the left channel. The Italian squared a low cross to the middle past a flailing Victor Valdes and Joseba Llorente easily stabbed the ball into the open net. The Yellow Submarine were growing in confidence and for the next few minutes, the Blaugrana were struggling to get the ball out of their own half. And in the 25th minute, the visitors almost took a shock lead when Rossi’s thumping header from an Ibagaza cross looked destined to ripple the net, but Valdes made a superlative one-handed block to palm it away just as he was about to dive the opposite direction. Barcelona patiently stemmed the tide to regain control and on 35 minutes, they were back infront. Iniesta latched onto Messi’s through pass towards the byline, slid forward to keep it in play and away from Gonzalo’s challenge, before drilling in a low centre for Eto’o to rifle the ball into the bottom corner. The Camp Nou was rocking again and three minutes later, Xavi curled in a sumptuous freekick which just sailed over the bar, before Eto’o blazed a volley over from close range following a goalmouth scramble. But the Catalans eventually found the buffer they were looking for in first half injury time with another freekick just on the edge of the box. Dani Alves stepped up this time and arrowed it into the top corner as Diego Lopez could only get a finger tip to it to push it into his own net. *Second Half* Chants of ‘Campeones! Campeones!’ greeted Barcelona out for the start of the second period. And five minutes into the restart, Barcelona had the ball in the back for a fourth time. Dani’s cross found Toure, but his lunging bullet header was parried away by Diego Lopez and Xavi duly followed through with the rebound, but the flag had already gone up for offside. Villarreal looked dispirited and the intensity of the game dropped off dramatically as they took the pressure off the hosts in midfield. Both sides could only create half chances and Barca were content to fashion openings only with eye-candy football. Eto’o has one such opportunity on 71 minutes when he ran onto Messi’s through ball and checked past Gonzalo but his wild right-foot piledriver on the edge of the box flew into the stands. But with 15 minutes to go, Villarreal were thrown a lifeline. Abidal shoulder-charged Nihat off the ball inside the box as the Turk bore down on goal and for the second game in a row, the French left-back was given a straight red as he was deemed to be the last defender. Mati Fernandez smacked the penalty into the top right corner with authority Five minutes later, Barca came within centimetres of giving away another penalty when Dani Alves cynically clipped Llorente. Nihat’s low freekick drive smacked against the wall, but the Blaugrana failed to clear the danger and a goalmouth scramble almost produced a heart attack in the Camp Nou stands, before Puyol drew a foul to give his side some respite. What was a comfortable stroll turned into a tense finale for the Catalans and their ‘cules’ as El Submarino came alive and one minute into injury, the Camp Nou were truly shocked into disbelief as the visitors equalised two minutes into injury time. Llorente brought a long ball out of defence with deft control, jinked past Carles Puyol inside the box and hammered in his shot past Valdes into the top of the net. With three rounds to go, Barca now have an eight-point lead over Real Madrid and they only need a draw next week at Real Mallorca to seal the title.
For the first time since 2006 a trophy appears in the Camp Nou cabinet... *FC Barcelona 4-1 Athletic Bilbao* Barcelona came back from a goal down to rack up a fully deserved 4-1 Copa del Rey victory over hapless Athletic Bilbao at the Mestalla on Wednesday evening. An early strike from Toquero gave the Lions the lead, but Yaya Toure soon restored parity before a Lionel Messi strike, a Bojan effort, and a Xavi free kick made for a thrilling victory for Barca. It is the Catalan side's 25th Copa del Rey victory and their first piece of silverware since their 2006 Supercopa, League and Champions League wins. Athletic, meanwhile, could not capitalise on their early lead, and thus missed the chance to make it 25 Copas for themselves, and to pick up their first silverware since their Liga and Copa double of 1984. Amidst an intimidating yet friendly atmosphere, the game began with the champions-elect on the back foot. Athletic had lined up in an attacking formation and this almost immediately bore fruit as Barca keeper Pinto was called into an early save from the impressive Toquero. Indeed, he was to open the scoring after nine minutes. Javi Martinez forced a corner from Pinto, but Toquero rose highest from the set-piece, foxing Xavi and Keita, to head home. Pep Guardiola's side struggled to fight they way back into the game after that, with Bojan looking out of sorts and Samuel Eto'o allowing Fernando Amorebieta to catch up with him and rob him of a one-on-one when it seemed easier to shoot. But midway through the first half the Blaugrana began to come alive, Gorka Iraizoz making a quick reaction save from Eto'o in the 25th minute. The equaliser came just after the half hour mark, and it was one worth waiting for. Yaya Toure strode past two Athletic players before rounding Amorebieta and drilling a lovely 20-yard effort in just next to the far post. Then Dani Alves, whose set-piece form had deserted him prior to this evening, came close to making it 2-1 with a free kick on the stroke of half time. Even though the break imposed on proceedings, Barcelona were clearly in the ascendancy, and ten minutes after the restart took the lead through Lionel Messi, who placed a shot past Iraizoz after the stopper had parried a Samuel Eto'o effort. A moment of controversy followed as Daniel Alves, preparing to take a throw-in, fell to the ground after being hit by a flying drink can, and although the police escorted a man from the Athletic side of the stadium it was unclear who actually threw it. Undaunted, Barcelona went 3-1 up through Bojan, who netted on the counter with a lovely curling effort, in off the post. Five minutes later Xavi side-footed a beautiful free kick in off the post to make the lead insurmountable, and Barcelona were on their way to the podium. Indeed, there was just one more chance worthy of the name for the Basques, Llorente scuffing a free header wide, and in fact Dani Alves and Samuel Eto'o could have extended the lead before the end. Barcelona now will look to gain both Liga and Champions League glory to go with their record tally of Copas.
Villarreal scored a late winner to clinch the three points in a dramatic match at El Madrigal, allowing Barcelona to celebrate winning the title in the process... *Villarreal 3-2 Real Madrid* Barcelona are champions of Spain, after Real Madrid succumbed to their third straight loss, this time at Villarreal. Villarreal lined up largely as expected, with last week's successful pairing of Giuseppe Rossi and Joseba Llorente up front. Juande Ramos, meanwhile, sprang something of a surprise by leaving Gonzalo Higuain on the bench, while Gabriel Heinze slotted into central defence, with Miguel Torres on the left. *First Half* Both sides entered the game knowing that only a win would suffice, and the intent to attack was apparent from both camps. A misplaced header from Gonzalo nearly floated over his keeper's head in the early stages, while Gabriel Heinze also missed a decent chance to open the scoring, heading far wide from a corner. At the other end, Iker Casillas was lucky to see his clearance rebound wide off Rossi's back, while the Italian was later denied by a fine sliding tackle from Heinze, just as he was about to shoot. There was no shortage of chances, as Van der Vaart then came close with a free-kick that Diego Lopez had to save low down to his left. A goal was forthcoming, and unfortunately for the visitors, it was Robert Pires who produced it. Ibagaza crossed the ball in from the left, and it was typically lacklustre defending from Real Madrid, as Pires was left open to head powerfully into the bottom right corner from the six yard box. The game calmed down somewhat after the goal, with Real Madrid looking deflated in attack, despite enjoying plenty of possession. Villarreal appeared content to sit back and play on the counter, as they were certainly being afforded plenty of space. Still, the game almost came to a standstill until the 42nd minute, when Rossi broke and tested Casillas with a fierce shot from the left. Thus a half that started at a frantic pace ended in uninspiring fashion, as Villarreal went in ahead, and looking comfortable. *Second Half* Juande Ramos made an immediate change at half-time, taking Klaas-Jan Huntelaar off for Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine has arguably been Los Merengues' best player this season, and he made an instant impact, squaring the ball for Van der Vaart from the right after being found by Miguel Torres. The Dutch midfielder was then left with an empty net, and he duly slotted home. The goal certainly opened the game up, and Cani released Llorente down the right, but he shot straight at Casillas. On 50 minutes, Manuel Pellegrini made his first change, introducing Bruno for Ibagaza. The nerves were apparent on both sides as the game turned into a scrappy affair, with neither side too confident of pushing forward, lest they concede another. On the hour mark, Joan Capdevila was played in by Rossi on the left, but his fierce shot was straight at Casillas. There were plenty of long shots flying in, without any of them truly threatening. Moments later though, Cani scored the goal that put Villarreal back in front. Real Madrid failed to clear Javi Venta's cross, and the ball fell kindly for Cani, who rifled the shot in at the near post, leaving Casillas with no chance. Real Madrid looked stunned, and the Yellow Submarines nearly increased their lead moments later, when Gonzalo met Rossi's free-kick from the right from point blank range, but the ball flashed off him onto the crossbar. With twenty minutes remaining, Pellegrini introduced Nihat for Llorente. Juande Ramos, meanwhile, brought Royston Drenthe and Dani Parejo on for Torres and Van der Vaart. Try as they might, Real Madrid did not look to have the energy to mount any sort of comeback. With eight minutes left, Pires left to a standing ovation, to be replaced by Mati Fernandez. To make matters worse for the visitors, Raul was clearly struggling with an injury, but was unable to come off due to three substitutions already having been made. Nihat then slotted home under Casillas, but was correctly adjudged to have been offside. The linesman correctly denied Villarreal on that occasion, and his opposite number on the other side then really rubbed salt into their wounds, making a shocking decision to allow Madrid to equalise. The ball was played in to three players who were all miles offside, but somehow Higuain's finish was allowed to stand. The through ball did take a slight deflection off a defender, but it was still a horrendous decision. The Madrigal was incensed, but there was still more drama to come, and this time, it went the home side's way. The corner came in from the left, and somehow, Casillas dropped a routine ball at the feet of Capdevila, who duly smashed it home, inciting wild celebrations all around the ground. It was the final action in an incredible game, that was yet another glowing advertisement for Spanish football. Barcelona, therefore, are now officialy champions of Spain, while Villarreal move level with Valencia, and crucially, have a chance to go ahead on head-to-head. As for Real Madrid, their season is now well and truly over, and it has been one to forget.
Recovering from a broken collarbone, Lance Armstrong briefly surged into the lead on Saturday, the first day of the legendary cyclist's comeback on the Tour de France. "Stage One done," the 37-year-old, seven-time Tour champion Tweeted after finishing the first stage time trials. "Started conservative and we tried to come home strong." The new dad started 18th out of 180 riders, with all eyes on him to see if he still has what it takes to dominate the grueling race. On a hot, muggy day, he sped his new Trek TT bike through 9.6 miles of winding hills and roads in Monaco in 20 minutes, 13 seconds, for a while the best time of the day. Other riders later clocked better times, but Armstrong seemed pleased with his effort. "I was a little all over the place," he blogged. "It was up, flat, it was down, it was a technical course. But I think, overall, I felt good." Can Armstorng, who already owns the record with seven Tour titles, possibly add an eighth after retiring two years ago and then un-retiring? For now, he says, he's not thinking that far ahead. "I think the best way to sum it up is, I had a good time," he wrote. "I didn't have any big illusions." The race, some 2,150 miles through six countries, wraps up in Paris July 26. "Overall I'm happy with my ride," said Armstrong. "I'm ready for a hard three weeks."
Roger Federer, who was reduced to tears after losing last year's Wimbledon final, exulted on the same patch of Centre Court Sunday after winning his 15th Grand Slam title -- one that breaks his tie with Pete Sampras for the most career majors. Federer prevailed in the longest Grand Slam final in men's history, turning back a determined challenge by American Andy Roddick, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14. With the victory, which took 4 hours 18 minutes, Federer claimed his sixth Wimbledon title and reclaimed the No. 1 ranking he lost to Spain's Rafael Nadal last August. Sampras, who won seven Wimbledon titles before retiring in 2002, was among the former champions looking on from the front row of the Royal Box, with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg sitting just to his left. The trio boast 16 Wimbledon singles titles among them, and they rose in unison to pay tribute to Federer's sixth. Federer hailed a teary-eyed Roddick as "an unbelievable guy" and unbelievable player during his post-match remarks and urged him not to lose faith he would win Wimbledon one day. "Today, I was on the lucky side," said Federer, who finished with 107 winners and a career-high 50 aces but did not manage to break Roddick's serve until the closing moments of the match. Roddick bore his disappointment admirably, telling the capacity crowd of 15,000 who honored him with a standing ovation, "I'm one of the lucky few that gets cheered for." After congratulating Federer on a well-deserved title, Roddick turned to the Royal Box and apologized to Sampras, half in jest, for not being able to keep the Swiss from overtaking his career mark. "I tried to hold him off," Roddick said. Then he spoke of the honor he felt in playing tennis in front of such great champions as Sampras, Manuel Santana, Laver and Borg. "I hope one day my name will be up there with theirs," Roddick said. Roddick, 26, played the best tennis of his career in toppling Scotland's Andy Murray to reach Sunday's championship -- his first appearance in a Grand Slam final since the 2006 U.S. Open.
The Blaugrana look like lifting their third piece of Spanish silverware this year... Barcelona take a significant advantage through to the second leg of the 'Recopa' after beating Athletic Bilbao on their own patch. Two second half strikes see the Blaugrana head back to Camp Nou on track to add to their Liga and Copa del Rey crowns - Athletic being their Super Cup opponents due to their being losing finalists in the latter contest - as well as the Champions League. The impressive San Mames crowd was buoyed by a first half strike from exemplary new signing Oscar de Marcos, but Xavi and Pedro ensure that Barca hold the lead. Although Athletic had the first goal, Barcelona in fact started the game by far the better side. Daniel Alves had the run of the right flank early on, while Bojan Krkic was the beneficiary of many of his crosses, hitting the bar early on before Alves himself tested Gorka Iraizoz with a stunning drive. In response to this early threat the Basque side began to sit back and hit on the break, but by inviting pressure the door was open for Xavi to net after good work from Thierry Henry and Eric Abidal on the left flank. However, the Spain midfielder smashed his shot way over the bar. On the half-hour mark Fernando Llorente very nearly showed his clas with a volleyed finish after Markel Susaeta's cross, and soon afterwards De Marcos tested Valdes with a long-range effort. That was a sign of things to come as the former Alaves man beat Gerard Pique on the edge of the area and smashing an effort goalwards. The deflection off Carles Puyol was somewhat fortunate, but the effect was undeniable as San Mames cheered as one. Barcelona, though, started the second half with the same pace and drive as the first, and it was not a huge surprise when they took the lead just before the hour mark. This time Xavi, an impressive attacking engine in midfield, atoned for his earlier error with a neat finish, albeit an unmarked one, as Pedro took advantage of time and space in the box to control and pass a cross from the equally at-leisure Abidal. Barcelona continued their assault and added a second twenty-five minutes from time with a strike worthy of winning any match. Young Pedro Rodriguez did the honours with a twenty-five yarder that had power, swerve and direction sufficient to prevent Iraizoz from even threatening to save it - the first goal of the youngster's senior team career. The match showed few signs of slowing down in the late stages as Seydou Keita came close to adding a third before the excellent Dani Alves forced yet another superb stop from Iraizoz, and even young Jeffren Suarez got in on the act with a late strike that went over the bar. That was that, and the stage is set for Barcelona to lift the trophy in the return leg in a week's time. Athletic, though, will dream of storming fortress Barca - a task all too few sides have managed of late.
The little Argentine was in inspired form as the Blaugrana gained yet another piece of silverware... Barcelona thrashed Athletic Bilbao at Camp Nou 3-0 to record a 5-1 aggregate victory in the Supercopa - the Culers' fourth major trophy of 2009. Holding a 2-1 advantage from the first leg, the home fans had to wait until the second half to see the goals, two coming from Lionel Messi and a third from Bojan Krkic. Athletic had to score at least twice after a first leg in which they took the lead only to be defeated. As such they began with intensity. But as any observer of the Spanish game knows, attacking at Camp Nou can result in counter-attacks, and with the Blaugrana also having more sense on the ball in midfield it was a dangerous game in the early stages. Still, the first true chance didn't come until the 22nd minute, a Pablo Orbaiz free-kick after a Carles Puyol foul on Joseba Exteberria forcing a rather smooth save from Victor Valdes. Right down at the other end Thierry Henry headed wide after good work from the indefatigable Xavi, and Barca began to threaten in earnest. Xavi and Lionel Messi both forced saves from Gorka Iraizoz as the half-hour mark approached, and although it took Zlatan Ibrahimovic 40 minutes ago to register his first real chance - a great scissor kick from a Messi cross - the Blaugrana went in the happier side at the break. They were to become even more pleased four minutes after the restart, a solo effort from Lionel Messi that will populate highlight reels for years to come. Skinning Ustariz, he cut into the box and clipped the ball from a tight angle past Iraizoz. It was all Barca after that, and twenty-five minutes from time an Athletic side rejuvenated by substitutions appeared to lose hope as they conceded a penalty. Ustariz and Dani Alves clashed in the Athletic area, the Brazilian went down, and referee Velasco Carballo pointed to the spot. This decision was met with no small measure of protest from the visitors - Ustariz picking up a booking for his part in the remonstrance - and at first and indeed second glance there did not appear to be anything wrong with the challenge. Nonetheless, Messi did the honours and scored convincingly from the spot to put the tie all but beyond doubt. Ustariz's evening went from worse to even worse as he then sold the third goal with a careless back-pass that Bojan Krkic - on the pitch for just two minutes - seized on to score a simple one-on-one. Athletic closed the game in a sour mood, wayward tackles and poor clearances abounding, as Barcelona steeled themselves for something that they must almost be getting tired of: a trophy presentation. That makes it 12 Supercopas for the Camp Nou side, and adds to a cabinet already including the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, and of course the Liga trophies for 2009.
Barcelona left it late to overcome a steely Shakhtar Donetsk side to win the European Super Cup at the Stade Louis II in Monaco. After a goalless ninety minutes, and tired legs aplenty in extra time, young substitute Pedro Rodriguez combined well with Lionel Messi to net the decisive goal. In doing so he added the Super Cup to Barca's 2009 trophy tally, which already includes the Liga, the Champions League, the Copa del Rey, and the Spanish Supercopa. Barca started the game with good pace, especially down the flanks, Lionel Messi bringing out the best in Dario Srna and then goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov. Thierry Henry, playing on the other side, was just as impressive as a great solo action resulted in a neat shot that just went over the bar ten minutes in. Most of the attacking play for the Miners, too, came down the wrings. Razvan Rat's cross for Ilsinho in the 15th minute was very close to connection before Seydou Keita managed a clearance. From there Barcelona were the superior side for the remainder of the half, but only a Lionel Messi effort well saved by Pyatov just after the half hour mark really had the fans on their feet. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, apparently lacking a bit of fitness, could have carved out a chance for himself just on the verge of the break, but a lack of control allowed Rat to tackle, and the half closed with a tenative handball claim against Shakhtar. Shakhtar looked more accomplished defensively in the second period, especially in the centre, as they held the Blaugrana away from many clear-cut chances in the second period. Part of the reason they did so was down to physical play, Ilsinho and Srna picking up early bookings, but in doing so they also freed themselves up on the counter. Were it not for a lack of cutting edge, and a great tackle from Eric Abidal on the hour mark, Fernandinho could have opened the scoring. Twenty minutes from time Barcelona burst into a period of life. Thierry Henry came close with an acrobatic effort after a Dani Alves cross; Pyatov got a hand to a great Messi effort; and good work from Xabi and Henry resulted in a disappointing miss from Ibrahimovic. That said, Ibra had a good claim for a penalty turned down twelve minutes from time, his last real act before being substituted off. There were to be no goals at all, though, as extra time loomed, and Shakhtar made two changes of their own. As Bojan came on for Henry, there was sign that fatigue was taken its toll on other Blaugrana players as pacy Shakhtar substitute Julius Aghahowa was allowed one-on-one with Valdes, only for the forward to hesitate and Puyol to mop up. But two minuts later Aghahowa showed composure to test Valdes from the edge of the area as the Blaugrana defence toiled behind. Bojan's solo effort at the other end signalled the end of the first half of extra time, Luiz Adriano having a penalty claim against Sergio Busquets turned down at the restart, as the tired players edged towards the 120 minutes. It seemed that penalties were inevitable, but Lionel Messi has never been one to face long odds with timidity. Instead he received the ball from Pedro outside the box and then threaded a marvellous return pass through the central defence for Pedro to slot home the winner.