Lionel Messi ends Chelsea drought to give Barcelona Champions League last-16 edge

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates with Andres Iniesta scoring his side's first goal during a Champions League round of sixteen first leg. (AP)
Updated 21 February 2018
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Lionel Messi ends Chelsea drought to give Barcelona Champions League last-16 edge

LONDON: Lionel Messi struck for the first time in nine games against Chelsea to give Barcelona the upper hand from the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday by salvaging a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Willian’s fine strike just after the hour mark had put Chelsea in command after earlier hitting both posts in the first half.
However, one moment of carelessness cost Chelsea dear as Andres Iniesta intercepted Andreas Christensen’s pass to tee up Messi to swing the balance of the tie in Barca’s favor 15 minutes from time.
The English champions must now score when they travel to the Camp Nou on March 14 to have any chance of making the last eight.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte sprang a surprise before kick-off by leaving out both Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata with Eden Hazard instead operating in the middle of a front three featuring Willian and former Barca winger Pedro Rodriguez.
And it was Hazard who sent the first warning that Barca were in for an uncomfortable evening when he fired just over from 20 yards five minutes in.
Antonio Rudiger also headed just wide in a positive opening from the hosts, but it was Barca who had the first clear chance on 16 minutes.
Chelsea constantly tried to surround Messi with three or four blue shirts to limit the Argentine’s threat, but he dug out a cross to the far post where an unmarked Paulinho headed wide.
Barca then went on to dominate possession for a large spell of the first half with their control of the ball reaching 80 percent at one stage.
However, the visitors lacked penetration before the break and were lucky to go in level at half-time.
Willian showed his ability to score from outside the box off either foot with a double against Hull City to take Chelsea into the FA Cup quarter-finals on Friday.
He was inches away from another long-range stunner when he curled onto the post from 25 yards with Marc-Andre ter Stegen beaten in the Barca goal.
Barca had kept six clean sheets in their previous seven Champions League games, but once again had good luck rather than good defending to thank four minutes before the break when Willian hooked another effort from outside the box off the woodwork.
Hazard then volleyed just over as Chelsea ended the half on a high.
Barca appeared to have restored order early second period, but failed to learn their lesson of Willian’s danger from the edge of the box.
A short corner was worked into the Brazilian’s path and he arrowed a low shot past the rooted Ter Stegen.
However, Barca remain unbeaten in 31 La Liga and Champions League games under Ernesto Valverde thanks to a late rally.
Luis Suarez had claims for a penalty waved away when he went down under pressure from Rudiger.
But Barca’s protests had barely been silenced before they were level.
Christensen’s dangerous ball across his own box was a gift for an old scourge of Chelsea in Iniesta.
At the end where he broke Chelsea hearts with a stoppage-time equalizer in a highly controversial semifinal in 2009, Iniesta this time squared for Messi to apply the finishing touch low past Thibaut Courtois for his 28th goal of the season.


Real Madrid can still win title, claims Santiago Solari

Updated 17 February 2019
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Real Madrid can still win title, claims Santiago Solari

  • Defeat leaves Real in third, nine points behind arch-rivals Barcelona.
  • Girona had not won in the league since November.

LONDON: Santiago Solari insisted Real Madrid could still win the La Liga title despite a shock 2-1 defeat at home to Girona.
The capital club were coming off a five-match winning streak, but were not able to get past their relegation-threatened rivals at the Bernabeu, conceding twice in the second half after taking a 1-0 half-time lead.
Girona had not won in 13 matches in all competitions and were coming off six straight losses. The Catalan club had not won in the league since November and had entered the weekend one point from the relegation zone. So to say this was a shock would be understating the case, Real were on the up, and this was supposed to be an easy win to aid their slim title hopes and add to the momentum of their good 2019 form.
But Solari — clearly a “glass half full” man — claimed Real’s title charge was far from over. Asked if the title was lost, the Argentine, who took over the asked Julen Lopetegui in October, said: “Not at all, not at all, next week there is another match, our rivals, too. All the matches are difficult, as Girona have shown today, we have to keep winning to try to cut the gap.
“This is football and there is always a rival, in this case Girona, who played well.
“In the second half there was a lot of energy. Girona were forceful when they attacked and we lacked clarity. The fatigue is not only physical, it is mental, concentration. We come from a major bustle, many games with good results, and that may have happened to us at the energy level in the second half. It’s likely.”
The surprise defeat dropped Madrid to third place and left them nine points behind Barcelona, who edged Valladolid 1-0 on Saturday with a penalty kick converted by Lionel Messi. The result at the Nou Camp ended a three-game winless run for the Girona neighbors in all competitions.
Madrid had won seven of their last eight matches in all competitions, with the only setback a 1-1 draw at Barca in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. They had cut Barcelona’s lead from 10 points to six in recent rounds after seeing their arch-rivals go through a slump.
Solari made some changes to the starting lineup, leaving Vinicius Junior and Gareth Bale on the bench after they started midweek in the 2-1 win at Ajax in the Champions League second round clash.
Casemiro opened the scoring with a firm header from near the penalty spot in the 25th minute after a cross by Toni Kroos, and Girona equalized with a penalty kick converted by Cristhian Stuani in the 65th after a handball by Sergio Ramos inside the area.
Girona had a golden chance to equalize about five minutes before the penalty, when Aleix Garcia’s close-range shot went over the crossbar. The visitors moved in front with a 75th-minute header by Portu after Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois initially saved a shot by Anthony Lozano.
Portu had hit the post a few minutes earlier with a booming shot from inside the area.
Solari put on Vinicius Junior and Bale in the second half, but they were unable to save Real. Courtois made it to the area in a last-gasp attempt, but could not get enough on his header, sending the ball just wide of the post.
As if to emphasize the dire day, Ramos was sent off in 90th minute after receiving a second yellow card.