La Liga: Goals galore as late Messi strike sinks Villarreal

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Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring the winner against Villarreal in La Liga at the Camp Nou.

Lionel Messi scored a brilliant winner as Barcelona twice fought from behind to beat Villarreal 3-2 in an entertainment-packed clash at the Nou Camp.

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Villarreal, unbeaten in any competition since the start of November, were briefly on course for their first win over Barca in 12 attempts thanks to goals from Denis Cheryshev and Luciano Vietto, which sandwiched a Neymar equaliser.

However, Barca then struck twice in quick succession during a frenetic start to the second half to record an eighth successive win in league and cup, Rafinha drawing the teams level before Messi curled home a stunning 20-yard strike.

Villarreal pushed for an equaliser as the game swept from one end to another, but Barca held firm to remain a point behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Sunday's encounter bore more than a passing similarity to Barca's Copa del Rey win over Atletico Madrid in midweek, where Luis Enrique's men also twice trailed before snatching a 3-2 win thanks to two quickfire goals.

On that occasion Barca found themselves behind inside a minute, but it should have been the Catalan side who took the lead on Sunday as they dominated the opening exchanges.

On-loan Liverpool striker Iago Aspas scored a last-minute winner to give Sevilla a thrilling 3-2 victory over Espanyol, who played the entire second half with 10 men after goalkeeper Kiko Casilla was sent off.

Christian Stuani put visitors Espanyol ahead from the penalty spot but the hosts levelled through a stunning strike from Diogo Figueiras and then Vitolo tapped home from close range to put Unai Emery's side ahead before the break.

Casilla was then handed his marching orders in the 40th minute but Sevilla were unable to capitalise on their man advantage in the second half and were left stunned by Victor Sanchez's 77th-minute equaliser.

However, Aspas eventually got the reward for his tireless performance by scoring the decisive goal in what was his first league start for the club.

Sevilla move one point clear of fellow Champions League chasers Valencia and into fourth in the Primera Division table, while Espanyol remain in ninth.

Aritz Aduriz (r) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Levante.

A brace from striker Aritz Aduriz saw Athletic Bilbao record a first league victory in over two months at the expense of bottom club Levante.

The Copa del Rey quarter-finalists were without a La Liga win since taking all three points at Getafe on Nov. 29, but Aduriz's double in a 2-0 success moves Ernesto Valverde's side away from the relegation zone ahead of next weekend's clash with Barcelona.

Levante remain rooted to the foot of the table with their own winless streak in the league now stretching back to Nov. 23, with four defeats from their last five league outings.

A solitary goal by Edgar Mendez saw Almeria pick up a vital 1-0 victory over fellow Primera Division strugglers Getafe.

The winger broke the deadlock in the 44th minute and the goal proved enough to decide an exciting and highly contested encounter which saw both sides finish with 10 men, with Almeria forward Tomer Hemed following Getafe's Sergio Escudero down the tunnel after being shown a second yellow card.

The win was Almeria's first home victory of the season and sees them climb out of the relegation zone and move within one point of Getafe, who lie 15th in the table.

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Cristiano Ronaldo receives two-match ban, set to return for Madrid Derby

Andy West 29/01/2015
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Cristiano Ronaldo has escaped with just a two-game ban after his sending off in Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory at Cordoba on Saturday.

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The Portuguese was dismissed in the closing stages, before his team’s late winner via a Gareth Bale penalty, after kicking out at Cordoba defender Edimar following a frustrating afternoon for Los Blancos.

However, referee Alejandro Hernandez did not view the incident as violent conduct, regarding it instead as a “blow to an opponent
without the ball being in playing distance”, which carries a lesser penalty.

And La Liga’s disciplinary committee decided to uphold that verdict when they met yesterday. 

Ronaldo will now be absent for upcoming home games against Real Sociedad and Sevilla, but crucially he will be available for a crunch clash with reigning champions Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon a week on Saturday.

The decision is sure to anger title rivals Atletico and Barcelona, with some Catalan media speculating before the verdict that Ronaldo could be suspended for as many as 12 matches.

Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti will now have to decide how to replace his leading scorer for Saturday’s home meeting with David Moyes’s Sociedad.

He has plenty of options, with Javier Hernandez eager for a rare start and Jese Rodriguez hoping for his first full game since returning from injury, while Isco or Bale could also be moved forward.

Happy to stay: Gareth Bale has dismissed rumours of a potential transfer.

Meanwhile, Bale has brushed aside reports he is unhappy at Real Madrid and has no thoughts of leaving the European champions.

Bale has been strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford with Manchester United reportedly keen to acquire his services.

However, Bale told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser: “I don’t see myself at Manchester United.

“I’m having a good time, we are winning trophies and I want to continue to do this at Real Madrid.

“I have many years left on my contract. I feel the support and love of the fans at the Bernabeu.”

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Barcelona’s Qatar Airways sponsorship renewal in doubt in light of human rights abuse

Andy West 28/01/2015
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Break with tradition: Barcelona have had Qatar Airways on their shirt since 2013.

Barcelona may not renew their sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways when the current agreement ends next year, president Josep Maria Bartomeu has admitted. 

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The Catalan club have faced mounting criticism from fans for their links with the Qatar government, which owns the airline, in the wake of criticism over the country’s human rights record in the buildup to the 2022 World Cup.

Barcelona signed a five-year contract in 2011 worth 150 million euros (Dh626.5m) for the company to become the club’s first paid-for shirt sponsors but Bartomeu has conceded the increasingly unpopular deal may not be renegotiated.

“We will look at other options – we are obliged to do that," he said.

“It ends in 2016. We are sensitive to the current situation in Qatar, which has changed since four years ago. Now there are social and political aspects which were not there when we signed.

“We must be sensitive about what is happening and make the best decision for Barcelona. IMG (who work with the club on negotiating sponsorship deals) are studying it and working with us.”

Many fans are also unhappy that the club’s alliance with the airline was seemingly introduced by stealth as it superseded a former agreement with charitable organisation the Qatar Foundation, who replaced UNICEF on their jersey.

However, Bartomeu ruled out the prospect of the club returning to its former policy of gifting its shirt sponsorship to a charity, adding: “The situation in football has changed a lot.

“We must be competitive with other clubs. Now we have seen how the Chinese have come into Atletico Madrid and the Asians at Valencia.”

However, Bartomeu’s comments may prove to be redundant because he may not be in any position to decide the identity of the club’s next sponsor after presidential elections which will take place this summer.

The elections were called earlier this month following a turbulent period which saw the club receive a one-year transfer ban from FIFA, suffer allegations of tax evasion over the signing of Neymar, sack sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and endure speculation that Lionel Messi wants to leave.

Indeed, Bartomeu’s comments could easily be interpreted as little more than a part of his election campaign as he attempts to regain some of the current board’s lost popularity with fans.

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