Euro round-up: Barca end winless streak, Juve lose again

Memphis Depay and Philippe Coutinho scored late on at Villarreal as Barcelona won 3-1 to finally end their winless streak away from home under new coach Xavi.

Prior to Saturday’s game, only three teams across the division had picked up fewer points on the road this season, after Barcelona were winless in their first five league matches away from the Nou Camp.

The long-awaited win came in Xavi’s third match in charge since replacing Ronald Koeman.

Frenkie de Jong broke through for the visitors minutes after half-time when he turned in a rebound.

But Villarreal equalised through substitute Samuel Chukwueze 15 minutes from time and were pressing for a winner themselves when Depay struck against the run of play two minutes from time.

Depay brought down a long goal kick from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, dribbled around Rulli and coolly put the ball between the legs of defender Pervis Estpuinan on the line.

Coutinho sealed the three points in stoppage time when he converted a penalty he had earned himself.

Barcelona remain in seventh place, but reduced the gap to early leaders Real Madrid to seven points.

Rayo Vallecano continued to impress as the promoted team fought back to draw 1-1 at Valencia.

Rayo, who have the league’s best home record, inched into fifth place after taking the point on the road.

Iago Aspas and Santi Mina scored as Celta Vigo won 2-1 at Alaves, while Mallorca and Getafe drew 0-0 on the Balearic Islands.

Serie A: Juventus’ misery compounded by Atalanta

Duvan Zapata has now scored nine goals in 12 Serie A games this season
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Duvan Zapata has now scored nine goals in 12 Serie A games this season

There was more misery for Juventus as they were jeered off following a 1-0 home defeat by Atalanta, four days after losing 4-0 at Chelsea in the Champions League.

Duvan Zapata scored the only goal in Turin, with a powerful effort in the 28th minute which went in off the underside of the crossbar.

Juventus almost levelled in the second half but Adrien Rabiot’s effort was denied by a fingertip save from Juan Musso.

Juventus players Federico Chiesa and Weston McKennie went off injured during the match, to cap a miserable night for the Bianconeri.

Inter Milan kept up the pressure on the top two in Serie A as the defending champions won 2-0 at Venezia.

Hakan Calhanoglu opened the scoring in the first half, before Lautaro Martinez sealed the result with a stoppage-time penalty. Third-placed Inter moved to within two points of AC Milan and Napoli. Napoli hoss Lazio on Sunday, while Milan welcomes Sassuolo to the San Siro.

Hakan Calhanoglu opened the scoring for Inter Milan at Venezia
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Hakan Calhanoglu opened the scoring for Inter Milan at Venezia

Both teams struggled to create chances in the early stages and Inter’s best opportunity came in the 30th minute when Venezia goalkeeper Sergio Romero did well to parry an Ivan Perisic header.

Inter took the lead six minutes later as Calhanoglu unleashed a powerful effort from outside the area which flew into the bottom-left corner.

Venezia almost levelled shortly after with a screamer from Mattia Aramu that Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic kept out.

Inter had several opportunities to double their lead before eventually doing so in stoppage time. Venezia left-back Ridgeciano Haps was penalised for a handball, and Martinez fired the resulting spot kick into the bottom-left corner.

Elsewhere, two late goals saw Empoli complete an extraordinary turnaround and beat Fiorentina 2-1.

Fiorentina seemed to be heading for the win after Dusan Vlahovic’s 57th-minute opener but substitute Filippo Bandinelli levelled three minutes from time, and Andrea Pinamonti netted the winner in the final minute of the game.

Sampdoria came from behind to beat Hellas Verona 3-1.

Bundesliga: Haaland scores on return from injury

Erling Haaland scored on his comeback with a second-half volley as Borussia Dortmund came from a goal down to beat VfL Wolfsburg 3-1 in the Bundesliga.

The Norwegian striker scored in the 81st minute after coming on as a second-half substitute following his recovery from a hip flexor muscle injury that had sidelined him since mid-October.

With their sixth win in the last seven league matches, Dortmund – having crashed out of the Champions League on Wednesday after a 3-1 loss to Sporting Lisbon – moved up to 30 points, one behind Bayern Munich, who beat Arminia Bielefeld later in the day.

The Bundesliga’s top two teams face each other next weekend.

Haaland was a second-half substitute for Dortmund
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Haaland was a second-half substitute for Dortmund

“A lot has happened in the past few days. But we played a good game and the result stands above everything else,” Dortmund’s Julian Brandt said.

“We are extremely happy. Now we have a good full week to prepare for Bayern and we will go into that game with a lot of confidence.”

The Wolves took a second-minute lead through Wout Weghorst, who headed in at the near post to complete a textbook break that had left the Dortmund back line exposed.

The Ruhr valley club levelled with an Emre Can penalty in the 35th minute after captain Marco Reus was brought down in the box by Wolfsburg’s Maxence Lacroix.

Donyell Malen put them in front by rifling in from a Reus pass to score for the third consecutive game in all competitions.

There was more good news for Dortmund, with Haaland making a second-half substitute appearance and looking as sharp as ever ahead of the big game against the Bavarians.

He needed only eight minutes on the pitch to bag his 10th league goal in seven appearances, volleying in from close range to become the youngest ever player to reach 50 Bundesliga goals at 21 years and 128 days.

Leroy Sane's winner was his fourth Bundesliga goal of the season
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Leroy Sane’s winner was his fourth Bundesliga goal of the season

Bayern laboured for long periods against a defensive-minded Bielefeld team, who had earned a 3-3 draw on their previous visit to Munich.

Substitute Jamal Musiala provided the key with a brilliant diagonal pass forward to Thomas Muller, who laid it off for Leroy Sane to fire in the winner from outside the penalty area in the 71st minute.

It ensured Bayern set a record of 102 Bundesliga goals in a calendar year, previously held by Cologne who plundered 101 in 1977.

Sebastian Andersson scored in injury time as Cologne beat Borussia Monchengladbach 4-1 in their Rhine derby in front of 50,000 fans.

Augsburg substitute Michael Gregoritsch scored in the seventh minute of injury time to salvage a 1-1 draw at Hertha Berlin, and extend the hosts’ winless run to four games.

Elsewhere, Hoffenheim routed bottom side Greuther Furth 6-3 away, while Bochum came from behind to beat visitors Freiburg 2-1. Milos Pantovic scored the winner from barely inside the Freiburg half.

Ligue 1: Bottom side Metz stun second-placed Nice

Bottom side Metz stunned second-placed Nice 1-0 in Ligue 1.

Nice’s second straight defeat at Allianz Riviera Stadium could see Rennes, who play on Sunday, jump above them into second place.

The hosts gave a listless performance in the first half and Metz capitalised on a lack of urgency to take the lead in the 31st minute when Fabien Centonze converted a low cross from Nicolas de Preville.

Goalkeeper Alexandre Oukidja protected Metz’s lead by saving Andy Delort’s close-range header with his legs on the stroke of half-time, before pushing behind a cross-cum-shot from Pablo Rosario in the 63rd minute.

Champions Lille failed to convert a late penalty and remained in the bottom half of the Ligue 1 table when they were held to a 1-1 home draw by 10-man Nantes on Saturday.

The result left Lille stuck in 12th spot, with 18 points from 15 matches, one point behind their visitors who remained in 11th.

Jonathan David had his 80th-minute penalty saved by Alban Lafont after Fabio had given away the spot kick, and been sent off, for tugging on the shirt of Mehmet Celik.

It was an unconvincing effort from the Canadian international and proved a comfortable stop for the Nantes goalkeeper.

Lille, whose domestic form has contrasted with their Champions League exploits where they top their group with one game to play, went ahead early when veteran Burak Yilmaz crashed home a right-footed shot.

The ninth-minute goal was set up by Jonathan Bamba and suggested Lille could break a spiral of disappointing Ligue 1 form.

But, as had happened six times previously this season, they failed to hold on to their lead as Nantes equalised in the 24th minute.

Ludovic Blas shrugged off the defensive attention of both Tiago Djalo and captain Jose Fonte to squeeze his shot inside the post and make it 1-1.

Nantes might have taken the lead six minutes later but the effort of former Manchester United full-back Fabio cannoned back off the upright.

Nantes’s Pedro Chirivella missed a good chance with some 30 minutes left before Lille came back strongly to dominate the closing stages but squandered their chance to take all three points.

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CL round-up: Barca with work to do to qualify

Xavi Hernandez’s first Champions League match as a coach ended in frustration as third-placed Benfica stayed two points behind Barcelona after a 0-0 draw.

Barca have advanced from their group into the knockout stages every season for almost two decades but a goalless draw at home means the Spanish club might need to beat Bayern Munich in the final round of games to advance.

If Barca fail to beat Bayern away, Benfica could overtake the Spanish club with a win at home to already-eliminated Dynamo Kyiv. If they finish tied on points, Benfica would advance courtesy of their head-to-head record.

Helping Barca is the fact that Bayern have little to play for except, maybe, the chance to knock out a historic rival, albeit one that has lost their aura following the departure of Lionel Messi and other big-name players amid financial problems.

Bayern had already qualified for the last 16 before their 2-1 win at Dynamo Kyiv and the result secured the German champions first place in the group.

Robert Lewandowski with an overhead kick and Kingsley Coman scored the goals for a threadbare Bayern squad missing nine players, with seven unavailable because either they tested positive for coronavirus or were unvaccinated and had contact with a positive case.

Meanwhile, all four teams in Group G are separated by three points and could still qualify heading into their last games after wins for Lille and Sevilla over Salzburg and Wolfsburg, respectively.

Lille moved top of their group after Canada striker Jonathan David scored his 12th goal of the season to seal a 1-0 win over Salzburg.

Sevilla jumped into third place, above Wolfsburg, with a 2-0 victory over the German team thanks to goals by Joan Jordan and Rafa Mir.

In the final round of games, Wolfsburg host Lille and Salzburg are at home to Sevilla.

Energized by a change of manager and another opportunistic finish by Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League with a game to spare on Tuesday with a 2-0 win over Villarreal.

United was led for the first time by Michael Carrick following the weekend firing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, just like his predecessor, the interim manager was left to be thankful for a goal by the Champions League’s record scorer.

More joy was to follow as Atalanta’s wild 3-3 draw at Young Boys meant United cannot be displaced as group leader courtesy of their superior head-to-head record against Villarreal.

Atalanta, who are a point further back, grabbed a point thanks to Luis Muriel’s 87th-minute free-kick with his first touch after coming on as a substitute.

Defending champions Chelsea, also advanced on the back of a 4-0 win over already-qualified Juventus, who slumped to their heaviest-ever loss in the Champions League. With Liverpool also qualified and Manchester City likely to join them, the Premier League will again be well represented in the knockout stage.

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Pedri beats Bellingham to 2021 European Golden Boy award

Barcelona midfielder Pedri has won the 2021 European Golden Boy award, beating Borussia Dortmund and England’s Jude Bellingham into second place.

The 18-year-old claimed the prize, which is presented annually by Italian publication Tuttosport to a European-based player aged 21 or under.

Bellingham’s inclusion as part of the England squad that made the final of Euro 2020, as well as his strong performances in the Bundesliga, were not enough to see him win top spot in the vote.

AP - Jude Bellingham
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Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham came second in the vote

Pedri secured 24 of the 40 first-place votes and 318 total points, with Bellingham finishing on 119 points, following a vote by a panel of football journalists.

He joins other former high-profile winners of the award, such as Wayne Rooney (2004), Lionel Messi (2005), Sergio Aguero (2007), Paul Pogba (2013), Raheem Sterling (2014) and Kylian Mbappe (2018).

The accolade caps a whirlwind year for Pedri, who joined Barcelona from Las Palmas in 2020, before going on to be named in the Euro 2020 team of the tournament and then win a silver medal with Spain at the Tokyo Olympics.

Last month, the midfielder agreed a new long-term contract extension at the Nou Camp, with his new deal running until the summer of 2026.

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Xavi: Aguero situation ‘uncertain’ amid retirement reports

Xavi has spoken out over speculation Sergio Aguero is set to retire because of heart problems, indicating the Barcelona forward’s situation remains uncertain.

Reports in Catalan media on Saturday stated Aguero, 33, is expected to call time on his playing career due to recent heart trouble.

He was taken to hospital after Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with Alaves at the end of October when he experienced chest pains and breathing difficulties during the game.

The Argentine was subsequently ruled out of action for three months following a cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) diagnosis.

Sergio Aguero
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Aguero joined Barca on a free transfer in the summer

After overseeing his first game as Barca manager, a 1-0 win over Espanyol, Xavi said: “About Kun Aguero I don’t know anything. I spoke to him the other day and what came out is not certain.

FC Barcelona's new coach Xavi Hernandez gestures during his official presentation at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona
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Xavi was recently named as Barca’s new head coach following the sacking of Ronald Koeman

“We don’t have this information. We are in touch with him and we will follow the evolution of what he had and hopefully he can keep playing football.

“This is the information I have. I don’t know where it came from [the news about Aguero’s retirement].”

Xavi’s comments came shortly after Aguero’s former Manchester City team-mate Samir Nasri claimed the striker is set to hang up his boots as a result of his ongoing health issue.

Aguero and Nasri played together for six years at Man City
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Aguero and Nasri played together for six years at Man City

Speaking to Canal+, Nasri said: “He just sent me a message and unfortunately it’s confirmed. I have a lot of trouble because besides having been the player that everyone knows, he is a very good guy. I have great pain because it is not a choice, it is forced.”

Responding to rumours earlier this month he was considering retirement, Aguero took to social media to say he was feeling “positive” and making “progress” with his health.

Sergio Aguero
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Aguero scored 260 goals in 390 games for former club Man City

He tweeted: “Amid the rumours, I’m telling you that I’m following the indications of the club’s doctors, undergoing tests and treatment and seeing my progress within 90 days. Always positive!”

Aguero, Manchester City’s record goalscorer, left the Etihad Stadium to move to the Nou Camp in the summer on a free transfer and has scored once in five appearances for the club.

A number of his former colleagues including Pep Guardiola and Raheem Sterling wished him a speedy recovery after news of his heart issue was confirmed by Barca.

Guardiola said: “We wish him well from all the people here at Manchester City, we wish him a safe recovery. The time doesn’t matter. Health and life are much more important than anything else.

“We wish him as speedy and safe recovery as possible and he comes back, if possible, to play again, otherwise to enjoy his life and what he has done, and to be careful and be safe for the rest of his life.”

On Tuesday, Argentina’s players unfurled a banner that read “We are all with you Kun” before their 0-0 draw with Brazil in World Cup Qualifying.

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Alves agrees Barca return on free transfer

Dani Alves, who spent eight years at the Nou Camp with Xavi, will join up with his new team-mates after the international break but will not be able to play until January; the 38-year-old has not had a team since he left Sao Paulo in September after a dispute over unpaid wages

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Aguero ‘positive’ amid retirement rumours

Sergio Aguero has addressed reports he could be forced to retire due to a heart condition by insisting he is “always positive”.

The Barcelona striker has been ruled out of action for three months after suffering chest pains during a match against Alaves at the end of last month.

He underwent cardiac tests at hospital as a precautionary measure but Catalunya Radio has recently reported he may need to consider retiring given the seriousness of the issue.

Responding on Twitter, Aguero said: “Amid the rumours, I’m telling you that I’m following the indications of the club’s doctors, undergoing tests and treatment and seeing my progress within 90 days. Always positive!”

The 33-year-old was withdrawn before half-time during the 1-1 La Liga draw with Alaves on October 30 after receiving treatment for several minutes.

Argentinian forward Sergio 'Kun' Aguero poses for the media during his official presentation after signing for FC Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, Monday May. 31, 2021
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Aguero joined Barcelona on a free transfer in the summer after his Manchester City contract expired

He left the ground in an ambulance and in a later statement, Barcelona said: “He is unavailable for selection and, during the next three months, the effectiveness of treatment will be evaluated in order to determine his recovery process.”

Aguero has scored one goal in five appearances for Barcelona since signing from Manchester City on a free transfer this summer.

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Xavi at Barca unveiling: No excuses – I come prepared

Barcelona presented Xavi Hernandez as their new head coach in front of thousands of fans at the Nou Camp on Monday.

The 41-year-old Barca great signed his contract, which runs until 2024, on the pitch alongside club president Joan Laporta.

“It’s a historical day for Barcelona. Welcome, Xavi,” an emotional Laporta told the supporters during the ceremony where the ex-midfielder was accompanied by his family.

“Thank you all. I don’t want to get emotional but I am, I feel goosebumps,” Xavi told the fans.

“This is the biggest club in the world and I’m going to work hard to reach your expectations. Barcelona can’t accept a draw or a defeat. We have to win all the games.”

Xavi joined after Barca paid his release clause with Qatari club Al Sadd. He will replace the sacked Ronald Koeman.

“I come prepared. My DNA didn’t change. We need to take charge, have the ball, create opportunities, be intense. We have a mission to rescue many things that were lost,” Xavi said.

Joan Laporta presents Xavi with a Barcelona shirt at his unveiling
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Barcelona president Joan Laporta oversaw the unveiling of new head coach Xavi at the Nou Camp

Struggling Barca are ninth in La Liga, 11 points adrift of leaders Real Sociedad and 10 behind arch-rivals Real Madrid.

After the presentation Xavi talked about how discipline will be a major factor in his project as Barcelona manager.

“We have to start with new rules that are going to be strict. It’s not a matter of being tough, it’s about having norms,” he said.

Xavi soaks up the applause with Barcelona president Joan Laporta joining in
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Xavi soaks up the applause with Laporta joining in

“When we had norms in the locker room things were good, when we didn’t, it went bad. So, we need to have order. Being professionals.

“It’s a medium to long-term project but we’ll need to work really hard to find the results. The expectation and the demand will be the highest. No excuses will be made or accepted.”

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Euro round-up: Barca held after squandering 3-0 lead

Xavi had plenty to like and much more to lament about Barcelona’s wild 3-3 draw at Celta Vigo on Saturday when his soon-to-be team squandered a three-goal half-time lead.

Playing their final match under caretaker-coach Sergi Barjuan before Xavi takes over as the club’s new full-time manager, Barcelona roared out to a 3-0 lead after playing one of their best halves of the season.

But injuries to Ansu Fati and Nico Gonzalez, who were having inspired performances, and the resurgence of Barca’s defensive doubts, helped Iago Aspas lead Celta back with a second-half double.

Aspas capped the comeback with one of the final kicks of the match when he scored from long range, while Barcelona were hunkered down in their box begging for the final whistle.

“We forgot we had to play the second half,” said a dejected Frenkie de Jong, who provided Barcelona’s only spark in the second half with a shot that hit the crossbar with the score at 3-2.

“We were too static, we need to show more character. This game was important to move up a bit in the table. It is a very hard blow.”

Barcelona remain in ninth place in La Liga.

Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema fired Real Madrid to a 2-1 win at home to Rayo Vallecano to go top of La Liga on Saturday.

Karim Benzema celebrates his goal
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Karim Benzema celebrates his goal

Real had drawn their last two league games at the Santiago Bernabeu 0-0 but got off to a strong start when Kroos drilled a shot into the top corner in the 14th minute after Marco Asensio had cut into the area from the right wing.

Their top-scorer Benzema doubled their lead in the 38th minute by knocking in a defence-splitting pass from defender David Alaba.

Real looked to be cruising their way to victory until Radamel Falcao came off the bench in the second half and soon scored a header, with the help of a deflection off Alaba, to put Rayo back in contention in the 76th minute.

The goal awakened the visitors and struck fear into the hosts as Rayo had two late chances to grab an equaliser, Kroos clearing the ball off the line following a goalmouth scramble and ‘keeper Thibaut Courtois tipping an Unai Lopez attempt over the bar.

The win took Real on to 27 points after 12 games, two above second-placed Real Sociedad who have also played 12 but can return to the summit if they beat Osasuna on Sunday

Ligue 1: Neymar double lifts PSG to 3-2 win at Bordeaux

Paris Saint-Germain stretched their advantage at the top of Ligue 1 to 10 points after two goals by Brazil forward Neymar and another from Kylian Mbappe helped them to a 3-2 win at Girondins Bordeaux on Saturday.

PSG, who carved out a 3-0 lead before late goals by Bordeaux set up a tense finish, have 34 points from 13 games, ahead of second-placed Lens who beat Troyes 4-0 at home on Friday. Bordeaux stayed 16th on 12 points.

Neymar struck twice in the first half thanks to a pair of sublime assists by Mbappe, having opened the scoring in the 26th minute with a neat shot past two defenders inside the near post.

Neymar muted his celebrations and took off his jersey to unveil a message on his shirt paying tribute to Brazilian country singer Marilia Mendonca, who was killed in a plane crash in the state of Minas Gerais on Friday.

The second goal was of superior quality as Neymar raced down the left and exchanged a one-two with Mbappe, who set up the Brazilian with a cheeky back-heel for a clinical finish into the bottom corner.

Mbappe made it 3-0 with a simple goal as Georginio Wijnaldum beat the offside trap and squared the ball to the forward who rolled it into an empty net in the 63rd minute, with Bordeaux goalkeeper Benoit Costil stranded.

The home side pulled one back in the 79th minute as striker Alberth Elis held off his marker and beat visiting ‘keeper Kaylor Navas from close range and PSG were forced to hang on after M’Baye Niang netted in stoppage time.

Bundesliga: Bayern win, Dortmund beaten

Robert Lewandowski scored his 60th goal of the year as leaders Bayern Munich won 2-1 against previously-unbeaten Freiburg in the Bundesliga.

Lewandowski knocked the ball in from close range in the 76th minute.

Leon Goretzka gave Bayern the lead in the 30th minute off a slick team passing move and could have scored more in the second half, when he hit the post with one shot and clipped the crossbar with another.

Janik Haberer ensured a nervy finish when he scored for Freiburg in added time.

Christopher Nkunku scored one and set up another as Leipzig beat second-place Borussia Dortmund 2-1 to ease the pressure on their American coach Jesse Marsch.

Leipzig piled on the pressure from the start and finally went ahead in the 29th minute when Nkunku picked up a long pass from Josko Gvardiol and rounded the goalkeeper to score. Marco Reus levelled for Dortmund early in the second half but Leipzig hit back when Nkunku crossed for Yussuf Poulsen to tap in at the far post.

A day after getting his first call-up to the German national team, striker Lukas Nmecha scored the only goal of the game in Wolfsburg’s 1-0 win over Augsburg.

Relegation-threatened Arminia Bielefeld got their first league win of the season, beating Stuttgart 1-0 thanks to Japanese winger Masaya Okugawa’s goal on the counter.

Serie A: Last-gasp Cuadrado winner ends Juventus slump with Fiorentina win

Juan Cuadrado’s stoppage-time strike earned Juventus a 1-0 win over 10-man Fiorentina in Serie A on Saturday as the Turin club ended a three-match winless league run.

The Colombian substitute beat goalkeeper Pietro Terracciano at his near post with a powerful effort in the dying minutes to clinch victory, despite a poor Juve performance in which they failed to muster a shot on target until the 86th minute.

Juventus
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Juventus’ players celebrate their late win over Fiorentina

Fiorentina defender Nikola Milenkovic’s dismissal in the 73rd minute injected some life into the home side as Federico Chiesa blasted a shot off the crossbar and Alvaro Morata had a goal ruled out for offside, before Cuadrado broke through at the death.

The result leaves eighth-placed Juventus on 18 points, level with Fiorentina above them.

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Barcelona confirm Xavi as first-team coach

Barcelona have named former midfielder and captain Xavi Hernandez as first-team coach on a contract until 2024, following the sacking of Ronald Koeman.

The La Liga club received the green light on Friday to sign the 41-year-old after they paid the release in his contract with Qatari side Al-Sadd.

Xavi played for Barcelona for 17 years, making 767 appearances and winning 25 trophies, including four Champions League wins and eight league titles.

“FC Barcelona have reached an agreement with Xavi Hernandez for him to become first team coach for the rest of the current season and two more seasons,” the club said in a statement welcoming the legend back to the club.

Dutch coach Koeman was sacked following a 1-0 defeat by Rayo Vallecano last month which left Barca ninth in LaLiga.

The club are still ninth after Sergi Barjuan was appointed as caretaker coach and sit nine points behind leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand.

Barjuan is set to remain in charge for their league match at Celta Vigo on Saturday, with Xavi arriving in Barcelona this weekend before his presentation on Monday.

“It wasn’t goodbye, it was ‘see you soon’. The Camp Nou has always been my home,” Xavi said in a video addressed to the fans.

“You’re my fans, my people, the club that I love the most. And now, I’m coming home. See you soon, Culers. Forca Barca!”

Xavi’s first game will be a local derby against Espanyol on November 20 after the international break.

A former Spain international, Xavi joined Al-Sadd as a player in 2015, becoming head coach after hanging up his boots in 2019. In April, he led his side to the Qatari domestic league title with the team unbeaten.

He turned down the chance to coach Barca in January 2020 after Ernesto Valverde was sacked but remained linked with the job even after Koeman succeeded Quique Setien in August of last year.

Xavi Hernandez set for Barcelona return?
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Everyone knows Xavi was a great player but is he also going to be a great coach?

How good is Xavi the coach?

By Adam Bate

Xavi Hernandez going back at Barcelona is a moment laced with meaning. For a club that appears to have lost its identity, the return of the man who came to define the style of play for one of the world’s greatest-ever teams is undeniably symbolic.

Lionel Messi might have been a god at the Nou Camp, but Xavi was the defender of the faith, always the most vocal advocate of the Barcelona way. Even as a player, he espoused the virtues of the passing game, the possession football honed under Pep Guardiola.

Everyone in Barcelona knows how Xavi sees the game. Fewer fans are aware of what a Xavi team actually looks like – but for the past two years, he has been in charge of Al Sadd in Qatar. Strip away the emotion and the sentiment and who is Xavi, the coach?

Speak to those who have studied his teams closer than anyone else and it seems the 41-year-old Catalan has spent his time practising precisely what he has long preached.

Bjarki Mar Olafsson knows Xavi’s methods better than most. He is head of scouting and match analysis for Al Arabi in the Qatar Stars League. In December, Xavi’s side narrowly defeated Al Arabi in the final of the Emir of Qatar Cup. Olafsson did the analysis.

“I have been here analysing and dissecting Al Sadd ever since he took over,” he tells Sky Sports. “I have put a lot of hours into watching his teams and his playing style.

“Just to follow his approach from when he started to where he is now has been really interesting because people do not really realise the work that he has been doing at Al Sadd.

“I think it is a major simplification to just talk about Barcelona and that tiki-taka football because what he is doing is quite innovative and really exciting in terms of his style of play.”

Club legend Xavi started his playing career at Barcelona and left in 2015 (AP)
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Barcelona legend Xavi played 779 games and won 25 major honours for Barca between 1998 and 2015

Pep: Xavi ready for Barcelona job

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola believes his former Barcelona team-mate is ready to become head coach at the Nou Camp.

Guardiola expressed his sympathy for Koeman following his sacking but says he has no doubts about Xavi’s ability to manage the Catalan club.

“Ronald and myself know exactly that we depend and live and we are there for the results,” said former Barcelona boss Guardiola.

“Nobody can survive without good results, not Koeman or Pep. All I can say is he’s a friend of mine, I wish him all the best, we can chat soon…

“Xavi – I don’t know what’s going to happen. In case it happens I don’t have any doubts he’s ready to do the job.

“He knows the game, he has passion and I’m pretty sure he has more experience now than I had when I took over.”

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How good is Xavi the coach?

Xavi Hernandez going back at Barcelona is a moment laced with meaning. For a club that appears to have lost its identity, the return of the man who came to define the style of play for one of the world’s greatest ever teams is undeniably symbolic.

Lionel Messi might have been a god at the Camp Nou, but Xavi was the defender of the faith, always the most vocal advocate of the Barcelona way. Even as a player, he espoused the virtues of the passing game, the possession football honed under Pep Guardiola.

Everyone in Barcelona knows how Xavi sees the game. Fewer fans are aware of what a Xavi team actually looks like – but for the past two years, he has been in charge of Al Sadd in Qatar. Strip away the emotion and the sentiment and who is Xavi, the coach?

Speak to those who have studied his teams closer than anyone else and it seems that the 41-year-old Catalan has spent his time practising precisely what he has long preached.

Bjarki Mar Olafsson knows Xavi’s methods better than most. He is head of scouting and match analysis for Al Arabi in the Qatar Stars League. In December, Xavi’s side narrowly defeated Al Arabi in the final of the Emir of Qatar Cup. Olafsson did the analysis.

“I have been here analysing and dissecting Al Sadd ever since he took over,” he tells Sky Sports. “I have put a lot of hours into watching his teams and his playing style.

“Just to follow his approach from when he started to where he is now has been really interesting because people do not really realise the work that he has been doing at Al Sadd.

“I think it is a major simplification to just talk about Barcelona and that tiki-taka football because what he is doing is quite innovative and really exciting in terms of his style of play.”

Xavi signed for Al Sadd in 2015, spending four seasons with the club as a player before taking over as coach. During that time, the team’s approach evolved considerably.

“I would not necessarily say they were a defensive low-block team,” says Olafsson. But what Al Sadd was before was a side that depended a lot on individual qualities to make the difference. As soon as he took over, what I liked a lot was that it was all about collectivism.

“At Al Sadd, he has the best players. But he is able to bring out collectivism in all phases of play and make the team work together. He is able to get the best out of every player and harvest the quality of every single one to work for the team. I really like that about him.

“You know how it is when someone transitions from the locker room to becoming a coach. He had to make a lot of difficult decisions but what he has been able to do is create a unit and manage the group really well. It has been fantastic to see.”

Last season, they won the title by 13 points, scoring the most goals, conceding the fewest goals, and remaining unbeaten throughout. They also won both cup competitions.

“Al Sadd has gone from being a strong team to a ridiculously strong team.”

Xavi Hernandez has enjoyed success in Qatar with Al Sadd
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Xavi has enjoyed remarkable success in Qatar with Al Sadd

Calling them a possession side would hardly do it justice.

“It is not just about possession,” says Olafsson.

“It is about absolute domination in every sense of the word. Dominating every single phase of play. When they don’t have the ball it is such an intense, high-pressing style. They just want to have the ball at all times. They are not all about keeping the ball.

“They are about tearing the opponent apart.

“His style of play is like a fast-flowing river. The water is flowing and if you try to put a rock there to block it, it will just find another way around it. That is what his attacking play is all about. He does not settle for a 1-0 win over the opponent. He wants to demolish.”

Sadd's coach Xavi Hernandez (R) speaks to midfielder Santi Cazorla during the Qatar Cup semi-final football match between Al-Rayyan and Al-Sadd at the Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in the capital Doha on February 18, 2021
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Santi Cazorla continued to pull the strings for Xavi’s Al Sadd side

Of course, it helps that Xavi has the best players. His former international teammate Santi Cazorla is still controlling things in midfield. Olafsson describes him as the best player in Qatar. But it is not just Cazorla, it is the whole Al Sadd squad that sets them apart.

“In Qatar, you are allowed to have five foreign players and the rest of the squad are local but just to put it into context, Xavi has 12 senior national team players of Qatar. He has all the best local players and he has most of the best foreign players in the league too.”

That brings challenges, however.

“When you have so many big stars, the biggest in the league, that’s when man-management kicks in,” adds Olafsson. “What Xavi has been able to do is keep everyone motivated and really focused on what they are doing. That is something I was sceptical about.”

Andre Ayew arrived from Swansea City.

“I was not sure how he would fit what Xavi is doing but you can see now that he wanted to create those more synchronised movements on the right. That was something that was lacking before. It allows him to get even more out of his right-footed attacker on the left.”

Is the gulf in quality between Al Sadd and their opponents a reason to downplay his achievements? Perhaps. But there are echoes of Barcelona here. Even amid the club’s financial crisis, Barca will still have greater resources than almost all of their opponents.

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The challenge is to maximise those resources in a way that Ronald Koeman could not. Xavi would hope to do so by providing a clarity of purpose. His vision, much like Guardiola when he stepped up from the B team, is obvious – and there will be no compromise.

“When you play a Xavi side you always know what to expect, you always know what kind of movements there are going to be, what the activity of the team is going to be on the left side, on the right side, how they position themselves in the build-up, in the progression.

“I could explain every single phase of play of Xavi’s team. The principles are so clear. He knows what he wants from each player in every position. Even though they rotate, everyone is familiar with the responsibilities of that role. They just know the requirements.

“His sides want to win it back quickly so those moments are always key. You need to escape that press. It is the same when you lose the ball. You have to be organised because Xavi is so organised in chaos. When the game is chaotic, his team will win nine times out of ten.

“You can never over-commit against an Al Sadd side because once you over-commit they know how to find another weapon right away. If you over-commit, say you want to stop their wing play, they will punish you on the other side. It is all so precise, so fast.

“There has been a change too. When he first took over, he was constantly playing 4-3-3 but he was not satisfied. He thought he could utilise his attacking play even more by playing a 3-4-3 keeping to his principles but getting his key players in even more advanced positions.”

It all sounds very Barcelona. Very Xavi.

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“His style is really suitable for Barcelona, he knows the club inside and out and he can manage the group really well, so I cannot wait to see what he does there,” adds Olafsson.

“It will be interesting to see which young players he promotes because it is like he has a profile for every position in his head. He knows exactly what he is looking for.

“Obviously, Barcelona have quite a big squad with a lot of different players. How is he going to utilise the strengths of those players and what type of player is he going to bring in to get the best version of his play? And how will his playing style develop?

“That is something I like about him. It is not like he has his ideas and it just stops there. He has a mentality to seek improvement. He is obsessed with improving his side. He is constantly developing and I think that is a trait of a great manager.

“I think everyone in Qatar will be following his career and his development.”

Soon the whole world will be watching.

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