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Arsenal, Barca Set To Serve Champagne Football

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Arsenal host Barcelona tonight  fuelled by the belief that they can eliminate the European champions over the course of two legs that promise great entertainment and incredible drama.

The Gunners remain in the race to claim the Premier League crown, though their hopes of dethroning Manchester United and usurping Chelsea took a shot at the weekend as a bad Manuel Almunia error gifted Birmingham City a point on Saturday.

“Barcelona is a different competition and we have a few days to recover and prepare. But it felt like a defeat on Saturday,” manager Arsene Wenger told the club’s official website, having previously blamed the state of the St. Andrews pitch for his side’s failure to register three points.

“It is always hard to pick the players up when you get a result like that. We are on a run that is very difficult, where we know there is no room for error at all, so Saturday was a big disappointment for us.”

When Arsenal have been faced with crisis points in this campaign, they have generally responded well. Against the very best – Manchester United and Chelsea – they have failed to acquire a single league point, yet the Gunners remain a very real threat in the title race, while an embarrassing 2-1 defeat at Porto in the Champions League was brilliantly rescued with a terrific 5-0 response at the Emirates.

Having failed to defeat an elite side this season, questions will be raised over the ability of Wenger’s side to defeat la Blaugrana, who have become known as the best of the best over the last 18 months.

Compared to the all-conquering Barcelona side of last term, this season’s Barca have received a remarkable amount of criticism. With the increased competition from Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola’s side have been placed in the spotlight, and though they have consistently responded, they have rarely convinced.

Recent results have not seen the Blaugrana sweep away opposition in the manner they achieved last season, while their football has not always been as fluid and eye-catching. Their results, in La Primera Division at least, have been just as strong, while progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League has been achieved, albeit with a few scares along the way.

Stuttgart certainly gave Guardiola’s men a fright in the last 16. The Bundesliga outfit grabbed the lead in the first leg, though they were ultimately unable to match the power of the Catalans when forced to travel to Catalunya. Lionel Messi, as has been the case so often of late, was Barca’s inspiration behind a 4-0 second leg victory, and the little Argentine marvel will be the player Arsenal most closely need to police over the two legs.

Goalkeeper Victor Valdes has indicated that the Camp Nou outfit are feeling confident going into this fixture. “We are not going to play conservatively at the Emirates. Barcelona are capable of winning anywhere,” he asserted.

Only the second team to take anything from Mallorca’s ONO Estadi this season, having recorded a 1-0 victory thanks to a predatory Zlatan Ibrahimovic strike on Saturday, Barca can approach this fixture with optimism, despite their naysayers

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Barcelona Open: Nadal’s Comeback Ended By World No 11

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Rafael Nadal’s injury comeback was ended by Alex de Minaur as the 12-time champion waved goodbye to the Barcelona Open for possibly the final time. Nadal, 37, returned to court on Tuesday after a three-month absence, making light work of 21-year-old Italian Flavio Cobolli in a straight-set win.
A day later, Nadal lost 7-5 6-1 to world number 11 De Minaur in round two.
Nadal, a 22-time major winner, has indicated he plans to retire in 2024 if he is unable to compete regularly.
The former world number one, now ranked 644th, has only played five matches since January 2023 because of hip and abdominal injuries.
Nadal is hoping to be fit enough to make a return to the French Open, where he won a record 14 men’s singles titles, next month.
Facing a player of De Minaur’s pedigree was always likely to be a considerable step up, and a truer test of his level than his comeback outing against 62nd-ranked Cobolli.
The 25-year-old Australian tried to test Nadal’s movement by using drop shots early in the match, an effective tactic which helped him move 2-0 in front and tee up another break point for 3-0.
But Nadal survived to hold and improved his level, producing a number of explosive cross-court backhand winners as he fought back to lead 4-3.
Another backhand winner, this time down the line, even drew a clap of the strings from De Minaur and teed up another break point for Nadal.
Taking the chance would have left Nadal serving for the set, but De Minaur recovered and won 19 of the next 24 points to win an opener lasting more than an hour.
After so long out, and with playing on consecutive days, Nadal’s endurance was always going to be tested, particularly against an opponent known for his athleticism.
De Minaur played smartly in a one-sided second set and broke Nadal’s serve three times, silencing the Barcelona crowd in the process, to secure an impressive victory.
Nadal left the court bearing his name – for what could be the final time – to a standing ovation and rapturous send-off.
Meanwhile, British men’s number two Jack Draper reached his 10th ATP Tour quarter-finals at the BMW Open in Munich.
Draper, 22, fought back after a rain delay to earn a 4-6 6-1 6-1 win over
German world number 179 Rudolf Molleker at the clay-court event.

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Leverkusen Chief Backs Alonso To Join Madrid

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Bayer Leverkusen chief executive Fernando Carro has claimed that Xabi Alonso will coach Real Madrid, while also lending fresh hope to Liverpool.
Alonso’s remarkable success at Leverkusen, who clinched their first-ever Bundesliga crown at the weekend, has positioned him as one of the most sought-after managers in Europe, with Liverpool and Bayern Munich previously leading the chase. Despite the interest, the 42-year-old Spaniard has affirmed his commitment to remain at the helm of the Bundesliga outfit for at least one more season.
However, Leverkusen’s leadership acknowledges the challenge of retaining Alonso over the long term, given his burgeoning reputation and the inevitable interest from top clubs across Europe. Among the potential destinations for Alonso, Real Madrid stands out prominently as Carro expressed his belief that Alonso could eventually return to the Spanish capital, where he enjoyed a distinguished playing career.
Speaking to Tidesports source, Carro also suggested Liverpool still have a chance of striking a deal for Alonso one day, as he stated: “I have no doubt that Xabi Alonso will coach Real Madrid at some point. What I am not clear about is when, but that he will end up at Real Madrid I have no doubt, as it is also possible that he trains Liverpool or Bayern.
There are a lot of clubs interested, that’s how it is, which doesn’t mean that in the future he can’t coach some of the clubs mentioned, especially his former teams as a player. But he feels comfortable here, otherwise he wouldn’t continue. We will maintain our ambition to play in the Champions League next year.”
Despite Real Madrid’s current managerial stability under Carlo Ancelotti, whose contract is due to run until 2026, reports suggest that the club’s hierarchy views Alonso as the ideal candidate to succeed Ancelotti when his tenure concludes. The backing of Real Madrid’s board, including club president Florentino Perez, further solidifies Alonso’s prospects of potentially assuming the managerial reins at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2026. Allegedly aware of the esteem in which the club’s leadership holds him, Alonso has opted to remain at Leverkusen, biding his time for a potential return to Real Madrid.
Alonso is focused on preparing Leverkusen for the second leg of their UEFA Europa League quarter-final against West Ham at London Stadium on April 18, following their 2-0 victory in the first leg at BayArena.

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Barca Blame Referee, Panic For Loss To PSG

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Barcelona had a two-goal aggregate lead and were seemingly in control of their UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg match against Paris St- Germain in Spain until it all turned to chaos.
A disaster performance from the referee, panic from Barcelona’s players and an unnecessary expulsion, according to Barca sources, were all blamed on a dramatic Tuesday evening at Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys as PSG ran out 4-1 winners.
Barcelona centre-back Ronald Araujo’s sending off turned the tide in their Champions League quarter-final as PSG came from 3-2 down in the first leg to win the tie 6-4 on aggregate.
A double from Kylian Mbappe, a long-range strike from Vitinha and an Ousmane Dembele goal against his former club sent Barcelona spiralling out of control – and out of the competition.
As Barcelona turned in a performance riddled with mistakes, referee Istvan Kovacs had a busy evening. The Romanian showed three red cards to the hosts – manager Xavi’s frustrations getting the better of him, before a member of his coaching staff was dismissed for dissent. That only compounded the damage done by Araujo’s red-card inducing challenge on Bradley Barcola early in the first half.
“The referee was really bad. I told him his performance was a disaster. I don’t like to talk about referees, but it had a clear impact in the season and it has to be said,” Xavi told news men.
“We are very upset and angry because the red card was the decisive factor in the match. With 11, we were in a good position, playing well and in command.
“It’s too much to flash a red card in a game like this. There was another game after that… It is a pity that the work of the season was ruined by an unnecessary expulsion.”
Araujo’s early exit allowed PSG to build momentum. The goals flowed; Barcelona collapsed. Joao Cancelo needlessly brought down Dembele in the box, allowing Mbappe to score the first of his two goals from the penalty spot.
“You can’t make mistakes in the Champions League,” former Barcelona striker Thierry Henry said after the game.
“If you make mistakes, you pay the price straight away and that’s why it is so hard to win that competition because you cannot make one mistake.”
Having left Paris with a 3-2 victory, Barcelona got off to the perfect start in their second leg when Raphinha deflected in teenager Lamine Yamal’s cross.
But Barcelona’s lead did not last long and PSG took control in the second half as the cards came from Kovacs.

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