Barcelona hoping to banish Champions League nightmare with domestic double

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Barcelona captain Lionel Messi is eyeing a domestic double to finish the season on a high following the disappointment of their Champions League exit earlier this month.

The Catalan giants’ hopes of a treble were dashed when they squandered a three-goal lead against Liverpool, who turned in a fantastic performance at Anfield to triumph 4-3 on aggregate in their semi-final.

Messi admitted Barca’s horror-show on Merseyside is still hanging over them, as evidenced by a 2-2 draw at Eibar on the final day of the LaLiga season.

Yet, having retained their league crown, Messi knows Barca must shake off any lingering European hangover when they take on Valencia in the Copa del Rey final at Real Betis’ Estadio Benito Villamarin on Saturday night.

The Argentinian forward said in quotes on his club’s website: “We are still getting over the setback at Liverpool. It was a big blow. It was difficult to pick ourselves up as you could see in the following game.

“It has been a spectacular year in which we have won the league and we are in the final of the Copa del Rey. We have had a great season with the exception of the game at Liverpool.

“That game has spoilt a little the year we have had. I just want to win the final and end the season with another trophy.

“We are all aware that it is a final and it’s another trophy to win. We have to end the season well, celebrating another title if we can.”

Messi bagged a brace against Eibar last weekend to take his tally to 50 goals for the season in all competitions.

He remains the heartbeat of Barcelona and insists he has no plans on leaving the club he first joined as a 13-year-old in 2001.

The 31-year-old said: “I want to keep competing at Barca and I have never thought about leaving the club. Nothing makes me think about not competing here.”

While Ernesto Valverde has been successful at domestic level, Barca’s struggles in Europe have brought the head coach’s future into focus.

He said in quotes on his club’s website: “It is an ideal moment because it is a final. We are going to try to win against Barca and put an extraordinary team in difficulties.

“We are excited, motivated and go there with the courage to try to win the final and celebrate it with our fans.

“We’ve reached a first final in 11 years, a first Europa League semi-final in five years, and qualified for the Champions League for the second consecutive year. We will try to cap a very successful season with a trophy.”

The teams drew their two previous meetings this season – though Barca battled back from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 stalemate at the Nou Camp in February.

Marcelino added: “If we score first, then we will try to score again to have a greater advantage, even if that isn’t definitive. The capacity of Barca in attack is huge and will force us to be almost perfect in defence over the 90 minutes.”

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Benfica wonderkid Joao Felix headlines our list of the biggest stars in Portugal

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Joao Felix.

Portugal has always been a hotbed for some of the best talent in football, but even by usual standards this season has been a special one.

Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes, and Ruben Dias, all under the age of 24, have caught the eye after outstanding campaigns for their clubs and are now being linked with big-money moves to Europe’s elite.

And they weren’t the only stars of the Primeira Liga season, where Benfica won the league by two points ahead of rivals Porto, who themselves had a memorable campaign as they reached the Champions League quarter-final.

Here’s a look at some of the star names from Portugal drawing raves this season.

JOAO FELIX, Benfica

Age: 19

Position: AM/FW

Goals: 19

Assists: 8

Chances created: 44 (league and Europe)

Dribbles: 19 (league and Europe)

Star performance: Hat-trick + assist v Eintracht Frankfurt, Europa League quarter-final

Reported valuation: €120million

Linked to: Manchester United, Juventus

Portugal’s current national team squad has recently started earning praise as the country’s latest golden generation, with the likes of Bernardo Silva, Andre Silva, Goncalo Guedes, Nelson Semedo, and Raphael Guerreiro all coming through at the same time.

But a player with the potential to surpass all of them hasn’t even made his senior bow, yet.

Joao Felix has taken the Primeira Liga by storm this season. He’s 19, and yet only three players managed more goals in the league; on five separate occasions Felix had at least one goal and one assist apiece in a game, and in a tight title battle, he equalised against rivals Porto – where he began his career as a youth player – in March during a 2-1 win that effectively decided the race.

But his most impressive performance came in the Europa League quarter-finals. Against Eintracht Frankfurt, the forward became the youngest player in the competition’s history to score a hat-trick, as he was involved in all of the goals during Benfica’s 4-2 first-leg win: three goals, one assist.

He’s been linked with a move to Juventus, where he would be playing alongside Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United, who have a history of finding good talent in Portugal, are also thought to be hot on the heels of the Benfica star.

BRUNO FERNANDES, Sporting Lisbon

Age: 24

Position: CM

Goals: 28

Assists: 14

Chances created: 134 (league and Europe)

Dribbles: 37 (league and Europe)

Star performance: Winning goal v Benfica in the Taca de Portugal semi-final

Reported valuation: €60million

Linked to: Manchester United, Manchester City

Unquestionably the best player in Portugal this season.

20 goals and 13 assists in the league, 28 and 14 overall, and all while playing as a central midfielder – it’s no wonder Bruno Fernandes has been compared to Frank Lampard.

There have been plenty standout moments this season. He’s managed one streak of seven games with at least a goal or assist, and another of six, and it was during the former spell of hot form that he produced his most important contribution.

Sporting had three games in a month against Benfica, including two in three days. Fernandes scored on all three occasions. Two of those came in losses, but even that came with a pretty big silver lining: he scored during a 2-1 loss in the first leg of the Taca de Portugal semi-final, and then, a month later in the second leg, got the only goal to ensure his side went through to the final.

Fernandes has played all across a midfield three this season, along with occasional appearances as an attacking midfielder, winger, and even defensive fulcrum. This makes him the perfect signing for anyone looking to reinforce that area of the squad.

Manchester City have been linked as they continue to look for a replacement to Fernandinho, and crosstown rivals Manchester United have also reportedly registered their interest.

RUBEN DIAS, Benfica

Age: 22

Position: CB

Goals: 4

Assists: 2

Tackles: 66

Tackles per game: 1.5

Star performance: Man of the match v Porto; most tackles in the game

Reported valuation: €50million

Linked to: Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Juventus

Among the current crop of young defenders waiting to take centre stage in world football, Ruben Dias has flown slightly under the radar.

He was one of the few shining lights in Benfica’s doomed 2017/18 Champions League campaign, in which they lost all of their group stage games, and since then his star has only risen.

After being named the Primeira Liga young player of the season for 2017/18, this season he has been the bedrock of Benfica’s title campaign alongside fellow 22-year-old Ferro. Dias has the habit of popping up with crucial goals – he scored one in a derby win over Sporting, and also found the back of the net in the Europa League quarter-final against Frankfurt – while he’s impressed doing his day job, as well.

In an early-season game against Porto last October, Dias produced a man-of-the-match display. He had more tackles than anyone else in the game, and the joint-most clearances and interceptions, as Benfica earned a narrow 1-0 victory that, coupled with the 2-1 March win where Felix made his mark, went a long way in deciding the fate of the title race.

Juventus, where Andrea Barzagli is bidding farewell and fellow stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are 34 and 32, respectively, have been mooted as a destination, while Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone is said to be an admirer and Man United have also reportedly been keeping tabs on the youngster.

PIZZI, Benfica

Age: 29

Position: CM

Goals: 13

Assists: 20

Chances created: 152 (league and Europe)

Dribbles: 34 (league and Europe)

Star performance: Goal and assist v Sporting in 4-2 win

Reported valuation: €22million

Linked to: Wolves

Pizzi has been somewhat of a late bloomer for Portugal.

He wasn’t in the national team squad that won Euro 2016, or in the group that travelled to Russia for the World Cup last year, though he had begun making his mark by the 2011/12 season, when he joined Atletico Madrid. He won the Europa League that year and then, after going on loan to Deportivo La Coruna, scored a memorable brace against Barcelona.

But it’s taken a return back home for his quality to get noticed. He ended the 2018/19 season as the Primeira Liga’s assists leader, and only Fernandes was involved in more goals this season.

On the back of that form, Pizzi has become a regular in Portugal’s squad, making three appearances during their UEFA Nations League campaign.

He, too, made his mark in the title race, getting the assist for the only goal in that 1-0 win over Porto where Dias starred. But his best game of the season came in the derby in February.

In Benfica’s 4-2 win, Pizzi assisted Dias to restore a two-goal advantage, then scored a penalty to make it 4-1 and wrap up the points.

Wolves, who have made a habit of signing Portugal stars over the last couple of years, are thought to be interested in the 29-year-old.

RAFA SILVA, Benfica

Age: 26

Position: FW

Goals: 19

Assists: 2

Chances created: 46 (league and Europe)

Dribbles: 73 (league and Europe)

Star performance: Winning goal v Porto in title battle

Reported valuation: €22million

Linked to: Newcastle

Rafa Silva has just enjoyed the best season of his career.

In the previous three seasons, the 26-year-old had managed a combined 16 goals, a figure he topped just in the league in 2018/19, with his 17 goals the Primeira Liga’s third-highest tally.

It’s been a remarkable improvement for a player who’s just hitting his prime.

And he hasn’t just scored a lot of goals, he’s scored important ones, too, including the one that effectively sealed the title. After Felix levelled the scores against Porto it was Silva who got the winning goal in the second half.

Newcastle struggled for goals this season at times, and have been linked with a move for the Benfica star.

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Arsenal's Henrikh Mkhitaryan misses Europa League final due to safety fears

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be involved in the Europa League final after Arsenal confirmed he would not travel with the squad.

The Armenia international’s safety was a concern due to the dispute between his country and host nation Azerbaijan.

Therefore the Gunners have decided against him travelling to Baku for next Wednesday’s game with Chelsea.

A statement read: “We are very disappointed to announce that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be travelling with the squad for our UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea.

“We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party.

“We have written to UEFA expressing our deep concerns about this situation. Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective.

“We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career.

“Micki will continue to be part of our preparations until we depart for Baku at the weekend.”

The former Manchester United man admitted he is “hurt” to miss the showpiece event.

He tweeted: “Having considered all the current options, we had to take the tough decision for me not to travel with the squad to the #UEL Final against #Chelsea.

“It‘s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it.”

UEFA later insisted that a “comprehensive security plan” was in place for Mkhitaryan.

It said in a statement released to Press Association Sport: “Working alongside Arsenal FC, UEFA sought and received assurances regarding the player’s safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country.

“As a result of these guarantees, a comprehensive security plan was developed and given to the club.

“While the club acknowledges the efforts that UEFA and the Azeri government have gone to in this matter, we respect the personal decision not to travel with the player.”

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