Dynamic duo strike again for Barcelona to hold top spot

Andy West 5/10/2014
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Wayward night: Lionel Messi was on target for Barcelona but should have scored more.

Barcelona kept hold of top spot in La Liga by overcoming a slow start to ease to victory over nine-man Rayo Vallecano, thanks to two goals in the space of two minutes from superstar duo Lionel Messi and Neymar.

In truth, Barca should have won by a far bigger margin with Messi in particular guilty of some poor miss­es in the second half. He had eight shots over the course of the 90 min­utes but only three were on target.

But they did set a milestone at the other end of the field by keeping another clean sheet, allowing Claudio Bravo to overtake former keeper Pedro Artola’s record for minutes without conceding a goal in La Liga – Bravo has now played 630 minutes without seeing his defences breached.

Manager Luis Enrique said: “Beyond what the record means for one player is the performance of the team. We started strong.

“We were able to make the final pass and the victory makes us stronger. It’s statistics at the end of the season I’m most interested in.”

Rayo made the better start and created the game’s first chance when Alberto Bueno found space on the edge of the box to unleash a well-hit low strike which Bravo did superbly to save to his left.

After Roberto Trashorras had a dangerous free-kick deflected over the bar by the defensive wall Barca belatedly burst into life when a lofted through ball from Neymar released Messi, whose right-footed effort was well smothered by home keeper Tono.

Barca were struggling to produce any fluent football but Rayo’s ext-remely-high defensive line, heav­ily reliant on a risky offside trap, always made them liable to create chances and that route provided the breakthrough after 35 minutes.

Gerard Pique lofted through a pass from inside his own half and Messi timed his run to beat the offside trap before controlling the bouncing ball, holding off the atten­tions of Jorge Morcillo and produc­ing a delicate left-footed lob over the advancing Tono.

Within a minute of the restart it was 2-0, and again Rayo’s danger­ous offside trap was implicated as Marc Bartra released Munir El Haddadi who in turn found Ney­mar, and the Brazilian arrowed a firm right-footed strike perfectly into the left corner, leaving Tono rooted to the spot.

And Barca should have been awarded a penalty before the break when yet another piercing long ball released Munir, who rounded Tono and appeared to be clipped by the keeper’s outstretched boot, but ref­eree Antonio Mateu Lahoz waved play on.

Rayo boss Paco Jemez made an attack-minded double substitution at the break, introducing Manucho and Javier Aquino, and Bravo was forced into another excellent save to keep out Leo Baptistao’s fizzing drive.

But the home team’s plans were wrecked shortly before the hour mark when Mateu Lahoz deemed a challenge by Morcillo on Messi to be worthy of a second yellow card, reducing Rayo to 10 men.

Barca were in complete control for the final half hour and squan­dered several chances to pile on more goals, with the subdued Andres Iniesta and substitute Ivan Rakitic producing saves from Tono.

The biggest culprit was Messi who fired three clear opportunities over the top, but Rayo never looked like getting back into the game and their numbers were further reduced in stoppage time when Aquino was sent off f for a late chal­lenge on Pedro. 

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Man Utd v Everton: Di Maria loving life in the Premier League

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Rough and tumble: Angel Di Maria has impressed in his four games for United.

Angel di Maria claims he relishes the physicality of the Premier League despite his slim stature and that he has already clicked on the field with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.

United’s £59.7 million (Dh350m) record signing from Real Madrid was voted the club’s player of the month for September by fans and has been a consistent threat in attack.

The 26-year-old Argentina wing­er admits however that United have to start achieving better results, and he has backed himself to con­tinue his good start despite the dif­ferences with the Primera Division.

Di Maria said: “It’s a more physi­cal, aggressive style of football here; strength comes into play a lot more. Players here are a lot more power­ful and show their strength a lot more; it’s another league but it’s all about settling in as quickly as possible.

“There have been other players of a similar build and stature to myself, slim if you like, who have come here and shown a physical resilience in the way that I hope to as well.

“The main thing though is I am very, very happy to be here, it’s a league I have always wanted to play in and I’m overjoyed to be playing here at Manchester United now and I hope it’s going to be for a long time.”

Di Maria said he felt privileged to be playing alongside Rooney and van Persie, but that their imme­diate understanding on the pitch needed to be converted into results.

He added: “It’s special – when you start playing you are aware of names like Wayne Rooney and Rob­in van Persie; you have seen them playing and know what great play­ers they are. So it’s fantastic to have a chance to line up with them. I’m really pleased with how that under­standing has started off. I think it has started well and it’s now about converting that understanding into goals and points as quickly as possible.

“I think I’ve settled in, I’ve got used to the style of play, the club in general and my team-mates.”

Di Maria will be in the United team for today’s visit of Everton with Juan Mata set to replace Wayne Rooney as he starts his three-match ban. Teenager defend­er Paddy McNair will continue in the back four.

Everton – who did the dou­ble over United last season – will undertake late fitness checks on defender Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, who both missed Thursday’s Europa League match in Krasnodar. 

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Chelsea v Arsenal: Jose believes Arsenal’s Invincibles can’t be matched

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Main men: Cesc Fabregas (l) and Alexis Sanchez (r).

Stadium: Stamford Bridge

Kick-off: 17:05

Live on: beIn Sports

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea are top of the Premier League and unbeaten entering today’s clash with Arsenal, but the Blues boss does not expect the feats of Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invin­cibles’ to be emulated.

The Gunners negotiated the 2003/04 Premier League season without defeat, an achievement previously only performed by Pres­ton in the 1880s.

Just like Chelsea’s one-in-a-gen­eration 6-0 defeat of the Gunners in March – in Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge – Mourinho believes it is not something which will happen in the modern Premier League era.

“It’s something that happened once in a lifetime,” Mourinho said.

“I don’t see, in modern football with the competitiveness of this Premier League, one team being champions without a defeat.

“That will stay in the history as the second and the last time. (That is) my opinion, but we don’t know.”

Chelsea have won five and drawn one of their six Premier League games so far this season and face a Gunners side also unbeaten.

Arsenal capitulated on their last visit to Stamford Bridge, a match remembered for the gaping defen­sive holes as well as referee Andre Marriner’s mistake in sending off Kieran Gibbs for a handball com­mitted by Alex Oxlade-Chamber­lain. Mourinho anticipates a much sterner test of his side, which fea­tures ex-Arsenal captain Cesc Fab­regas pulling the strings in midfield. Fabregas was a precocious teenager when Arsenal won the 2004 title.

Mourinho loves the intensity of a derby day and testing himself against the best. His players will also need no additional motivation, just a few instructions.

“I like it difficult,” he said. I like to play against the best. My players also like it.

“Sometimes we are worried about the focus and we are worried about the approach.

“When you play big matches you know the players are more than ready for that. I have a meeting with them, but not a motivational meeting. Just a meeting to try to analyse a few things, a few images. Just about football. Never about the emotional side of it, or the motiva­tional side of it.”

Wenger has told his team that posing their own attacking threat at Stamford Bridge will be just as im­portant as keeping “killer” Chelsea striker Diego Costa quiet.

Spain international Costa has scored eight goals in six Premier League appearances since his sum­mer move from Atletico Madrid, but Wenger insists Arsenal – spear­headed by Danny Welbeck, who netted a European hat-trick in mid­week – can offer plenty of forward threat themselves.

“You have to find a balance between nullifying their strengths, but without forget­ting to express your strengths,” he said.

“It is very important that we focus and concentrate on us hav­ing a great determination, a great desire and a great hunger to have a great performance, and focus on our performance and the way we want to play.”

Arsenal would be nine points behind leaders Chelsea should they lose today. Wenger, though, is not about to read too much into how the early Premier League table is shaping up.

“We want to go to Chelsea to win and, of course, they are six points ahead of us, (which) makes our desire even bigger,” he said.

“We have had a bit more of a dif­ficult run until now than they had because we played Everton, Man­chester City and Tottenham in our games, but it is a vital game for us to stay in the race, of course.”

Team news:

Chelsea: Diego Costa will start despite his temperamental hamstrings. Didier Drogba (ankle), who has scored 13 goals in 14 games against Arsenal, finishing on the losing side once in that time, is out. Midfielder Ramires (groin) is also absent.

Arsenal: Arsenal could have defender Nacho Monreal (back) available. Midfielders Aaron Ramsey (hamstring) and Mikel Arteta (calf) remain sidelined, while Abou Diaby is again likely to be rested following a hip problem.

Likely line-ups:

Chelsea: Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Fabregas, Matic, Hazard, Oscar, Willian, Costa.

Arsenal: Szczesn, Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Chambers, Wilshere, Flamini, Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez, Welbeck.

Players to watch: 

Chelsea: Cesc Fabregas- The obvious man to keep an eye on and it really will make Wenger look stupid for not re-signing him this summer if Fabregas puts on a masterclass today. Has been sublime on his Premier League return; his passing crisp and full of invention.

Arsenal: Alexis Sanchez- There are few harder working forwards in football. Just see how much ground Sanchez covers over the course of the game. He is starting to grow into his role in the team although you can’t help thinking he’d be more effective a little higher up the field and playing in a central position.

Sport360° Prediction: 

Like last year's encounter, we expect plenty of goals and it will be Chelsea that come out on top with Diego Costa adding to his impressive goal tally. Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal 

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