La Liga: Messi’s the Main Man in Valencia!

Levante 0-5 Barcelona

Barcelona ran riot at the Ciutat de Valencia tonight as Lionel Messi scored yet another hat-trick to fire the Champions three points clear at the top of La Liga.

Luis Suarez opened the scoring against an in-form Levante side, and then the man from Argentina simply destroyed his hosts, scoring three and making two assists as Gerard Pique added a late fifth.

The biggest La Liga 2018 news on Saturday was that Atletico had drawn level at the top with Barca thanks to a man-of-the-match performance from Antoine Griezmann, scoring twice and making the third in a 2-3 win away to Real Valladolid. Then Sevilla joined the leaders on 31 points after a 2-0 win over Girona, with Real Madrid ominously just a couple of points behind.

Despite things bunching up at the top of the league, the La Liga 2018 betting markets still have Ernesto Valverde’s team as odds-on favourites to lift the title again, with Los Blancos sneaking into second place in the running.

And a thumping win like this just goes to show the market knows what it’s doing!

Highlights of the game

Paco Lopez has Levante to eighth in the table, and Barca realised they were in for a game when Emmanuel Boateng forced Ter Stegen to make a good save low to his right.

But the champions soon got into their stride. Barca’s second string bossed the Champions League tie with Spurs in midweek but the big hitters were recalled for this key La Liga match in Valencia. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez started the game with 21 league goals between them, and Valverde put his faith in them to stretch the Levante defence. And the two combined well for Messi to fire in a shot which whistled just past the post on ten minutes.

Jason was a creative force for Levante and he produced a chance for Ruben Rochina but he had his effort blocked. Then Messi fired a shot towards the top right corner which was expertly tipped away by Oier. But there was little the Levante keeper could do on 35 minutes when Messi slid a ball to Suarez and the Uruguayan smashed it high into the top left corner.

La Liga: Barcelona defeat Levante 5-0 with Luis Suarez scoring the first goal

Luis Suarez celebrate after scoring Barcelona’s first goal against Levante

Then, just before the break, Messi was on the end of a quick breakaway and put Barca 2-0 up with a cool finish past Oier.

The hosts could feel a little hard done to by the halftime scoreline, having had a good share of the ball and the shots on goal. But if they felt like they had an uphill battle during the break, it suddenly became a mountainous task just a couple of minutes into the second half when Messi was given too much space and slotted his second, and Barca’s third, low into the corner.

The little genius’ hat-trick came exactly on the hour and this time it was put on a plate for him. The industrious Arturo Vidal fired a ball across the six-yard box and Messi poked home from point-blank range.

There wasn’t a lot Levante could do about the scoreline, but Erick Cabaco lost his head and his place on the pitch, seeing red for a nasty assault on Ousmane Dembele to make it a night to forget for the hosts. Even more forgettable in the dying minutes when Messi set up Gerard Pique to fire home the fifth.

Key Statistics

Levante was well in the game in the first half hour and finished the opening 45 with a level shot count of seven each. But Barcelona’s world-class strikers were clinical when the chances presented themselves and the champions went in two up at the break.

And while Levante still had plenty of the ball in the second half, the same pattern continued. Barca hit the target while the hosts fired blanks to make it three wins in three for Valverde’s men and a first defeat in four for Levante.

What’s next?

A four-game winless streak in the autumn stopped Barca from pulling away at the top of La Liga and that made it a more entertaining prospect for us football fans.

But Valverde’s men have shown they are the real deal yet again with this resounding win in Valencia. Barcelona faces another form side next weekend, when Celta Vigo visits the Camp Nou, up to ninth having taken seven points from the last three games.

Meanwhile, Levante visits Rayo Vallecano; and that’s a good chance for Lopez’ side to get back to winning ways against the 19th placed club, which has just suffered back-to-back defeats. They just need to forget about this game and move on.

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Premier League: Supersub Shaqiri Fires Liverpool to the Top

Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United

Two second-half goals from Xherdan Shaqiri won the Mersey/Manchester derby and lifted Jurgen Klopp’s Reds back to the top of the league.

This is the Premier League’s biggest derby without question, and the 201st meeting between Liverpool and Manchester United certainly didn’t disappoint. In a pulsating first half Sadio Mane put the hosts in front before Alisson gifted Jesse Lingard an unlikely equaliser. But within ten minutes of coming on to the pitch Swiss star Shaqiri took the game away from the Red Devils with his quick-fire brace.

The pre-match Premier League 2018 odds at us, on the title returning to Anfield, had plummeted to 3.50 and this was a huge game in Klopp’s quest to keep pace with Manchester City. Jose Mourinho’s big call was to drop Paul Pogba to the bench after the Red Devils’ midweek loss to Valencia, but it didn’t pay off.

Highlights of the game

In a frenetic start to the game, Manchester United had the ball in the net on just four minutes. Ashley Young floated a free-kick into the bottom corner, but Romelu Lukaku was in an offside position when he tried to add his touch.

Mo Salah scored a hat-trick last week to fire the Reds to the top, though he hasn’t ever scored a Premier League goal against Manchester United. But he was in the thick of the action in the early stages. Roberto Firmino hit a fine low shot which David De Gea palmed away, and Salah was about to turn the ball in when Victor Lindelof made an excellent challenge. Then the Egyptian robbed Lindelof to launch another attack ending in a Fabinho shot which De Gea tipped away.

Marcus Rashford had a pot shot from distance, straight at Alisson in the Liverpool goal; but the hosts continued to dominate and got their reward on 25 minutes. Firminho chipped a lovely ball forward which Sadio Mane chested down and volleyed past De Gea to send the Anfield crowd wild.

Premier League: Sadio Mane in action for Liverpool against Manchester United

Sadio Mane scored a superb opening goal for Liverpool during their 3-1 win versus Manchester United

But they were silenced before long when their highly rated keeper gave United an early Christmas present. Lukaku crossed a seemingly harmless ball into Alisson’s hands and he spilt it to allow Jesse Lingard to scoop the ball home. 1-1.

Pick up the Premier League 2018 highlights to see that one, though I seriously doubt Liverpool’s keeper will want to!

That goal took the wind out of Liverpool’s sails and they went in level at the break, and Mourinho tried to keep it that way by bringing Marouane Fellaini on for the second half. World Cup winner Pogba stayed on the bench.

Liverpool came close to restoring their lead on 52 minutes after Firmino forced De Gea into another good save. Naby Keita tried to poke home the rebound but Ashley Young made a last-ditch tackle. And then Fellaini was on hand to block a Virgil Van Dijk drive which was destined for the net.

Klopp brought Xherdan Shaqiri on to try to spark something as United were keeping the hosts at arms length, forcing them to shoot from distance. And the former Stoke City man had an immediate and amazing impact. As Liverpool piled the pressure on De Gea’s goal, a loose clearance landed at Shaqiri’s feet and he fired high into the roof of the net at the United keepers’ near post.

And then, on 81 minutes the super sub added another, finishing off a fast flowing move with a deflected drive. And that was about the best Christmas gift the Liverpool Kop could ever wish for.

Key Statistics

Here’s the statistic Manchester United fans love to throw at their Liverpool rivals:
20 league titles to Liverpool’s 18.

But the way these two clubs are heading, that gap will narrow before it widens.

It’s five wins on the trot for Liverpool and just one in five for United and the two teams are separated by a massive 19 points.

This was Liverpool’s first league win against United in nine attempts, and they have now broken their Premier League unbeaten run record, stretching it to 18. Can it get much better for the Reds?

What’s next?

So now that the dust has settled Liverpool is back at the top of the Premier League.

Jurgen Klopp takes his team to the Black Country next Friday for a really difficult test against big spending Wolves. The Premier League new boys are playing good attacking football and three wins have lifted them up to seventh.

Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho takes his Red Devils to South Wales to face another of the newly promoted clubs. Cardiff City were, and still probably are, most pundits’ favourites to go down, but Neil Warnock has them playing with passion and he will be determined to keep in the battle to stay up any way he can. I doubt this game will be pretty!

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Shaq-attack grounds Red Devils

Xherdan Shaqiri sprung from the bench with 20 minutes left to score twice as Liverpool defeated Manchester United 3-1 at Anfield.

The Swiss scored two deflected goals in seven minutes, ensuring Liverpool returned to the top of the Premier League with a thoroughly deserved success.

Jurgen Klopp boldly sent Shaqiri in for Fabinho as his side struggled to get on top of deep-lying United in the second half.

It paid off handsomely, moving Liverpool 19 points clear of their bitter rivals – the biggest gap between the clubs at this stage of a season in 46 years.

Liverpool began with the sort of intensity predicted, as the Red Devils attempted to quell the raucous atmosphere inside the famous Merseyside venue.

Roberto Firmino tested David de Gea early on as the home side made inroads but it was Sadio Mane that made the breakthrough on 24 minutes. Fabinho's lofted pass was expertly cushioned down on his chest and volleyed underneath de Gea, Mane having lost Ashley Young in the 18-yard box.

United got a lifeline shortly after the half-hour. Romelu Lukaku's low cross to the near post was spilled by Alisson, with Lingard reacting fastest to silence the Kop.

That gave Jose Mourinho's men a foothold and, in truth, they held the hosts off with some ease before Shaqiri arrived – despite Liverpool dominating possession.

Within three minutes of Klopp's key change, Mane's low cross took a couple of deflections before arriving at Shaqiri's feet and his shot clipped Young en route to cannoning off the cross bar and into the United net.

With ten minutes left, Shaqiri made sure. A flowing Reds move saw him feed Mohamed Salah on the edge of the box and, when the ball came back, the playmaker saw his curling left-foot show clip Eric Bailly and fly past de Gea.

Liverpool are 1/2 to extend their Premier League advantage by defeating Wolves at Molineux on Friday. The home side are 5/1 while the draw is 10/3.

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Hazard ready to hit top gear

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri is tipping Eden Hazard to thrive in the coming weeks after the Belgian inspired his team to a 2-1 win at Brighton.

Hazard laid on the opener for Pedro with a superb pass at the Amex Stadium and then raced clear after taking a ball from Willian to score Chelsea's second goal.

The Blues looked to be cruising just beyond the half-hour, but Brighton stuck to their task and set up a dramatic finish when Solly March hooked home with 25 minutes left.

Hazard has eight goals and nine assists this season in the league for Chelsea and his manager is tipping the 27-year-old to really come good now.

"I think that Hazard could have played better because his level is a very high level," said Sarri. "He can do more for him and for us.

"But I think after the two injuries, he lost the physical condition. Now he's improving. In one or two matches he'll be back at the top."

Chelsea had to withstand the late attacks from the Seagulls to record their first win in three away matches and stay in fourth in the Premier League, two points behind Tottenham.

Chelsea are 3/10 to beat Leicester at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The Foxes are 8/1 with the draw priced at 9/2.

Chris Hughton felt Brighton were unlucky to be two down at the break, giving themselves too much to do from that point.

"They had two chances in the first half and scored two goals," said Hughton. "We started the game well but you can't give them the leg up by going behind.

"Then you have to have a response in the second half which we did in the second-half."

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Hazard ready to hit top gear

Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri is tipping Eden Hazard to thrive in the coming weeks after the Belgian inspired his team to a 2-1 win at Brighton.

Hazard laid on the opener for Pedro with a superb pass at the Amex Stadium and then raced clear after taking a ball from Willian to score Chelsea's second goal.

The Blues looked to be cruising just beyond the half-hour, but Brighton stuck to their task and set up a dramatic finish when Solly March hooked home with 25 minutes left.

Hazard has eight goals and nine assists this season in the league for Chelsea and his manager is tipping the 27-year-old to really come good now.

"I think that Hazard could have played better because his level is a very high level," said Sarri. "He can do more for him and for us.

"But I think after the two injuries, he lost the physical condition. Now he's improving. In one or two matches he'll be back at the top."

Chelsea had to withstand the late attacks from the Seagulls to record their first win in three away matches and stay in fourth in the Premier League, two points behind Tottenham.

Chelsea are 3/10 to beat Leicester at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The Foxes are 8/1 with the draw priced at 9/2.

Chris Hughton felt Brighton were unlucky to be two down at the break, giving themselves too much to do from that point.

"They had two chances in the first half and scored two goals," said Hughton. "We started the game well but you can't give them the leg up by going behind.

"Then you have to have a response in the second half which we did in the second-half."

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‘Merciless’ Saints down Gunners

Ralph Hasenhuttl suggested Southampton had been rewarded for their hard work and persistence with a 3-2 win over Arsenal at St Mary's.

The home side twice led through headers from Danny Ings, but they were twice pegged back by Henrikh Mkhitaryan goals – the second just after half-time taking a wicked deflection to beat Alex McCarthy.

Ings had headed Matt Targett's cross home after 20 minutes only for Mkhitaryan to match it eight minutes later.

Southampton went back in front just before the break, Ings looping a fine header home from Nathan Redmond's cross.

It looked to be more frustration for them when Arsenal found a fortunate second equaliser but subs Shane Long and Charlie Austin combined with five minutes remaining to set up a massive Saints success.

Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno flopped at Long's cross, allowing Austin head into an unguarded net at the back post.

It gave Hasenhuttl his first victory in the Premier League at the second attempt and hoisted Southampton out of the relegation zone on goal difference.

He paid tribute to hard work done on the training ground.

"It's amazing what the team can do in a week. It was very intensive, we had time to work on the basics and built the fundamentals for our game," said the Saints boss.

"I'm very proud of how focused and uncompromising they were, and when they had the chances, how merciless they were.

"It was a fantastic atmosphere and a special feeling here to win the match."

Southampton are 7/5 to win a crucial battle with fellow strugglers Huddersfield next Saturday. The home side are 11/5 while the draw is 2/1.

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Premier League: Hazard in a Class of his Own

As Premier League games go, this is what is often described as a ‘free hit’.

For Brighton that is.

On the back of six points from their last nine and sitting comfortably in 13th place, it was widely accepted anything they could gain from the high-flying aristocrats of West London was a bonus.

In the end, however, the contest went the way most us fans and Premier League 2018 betting odds expected as one man showed his undoubted class.

Highlights of the game

Fresh from their best win of the season against the side which took their champions crown, there was no surprise that Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri stuck with the same starting XI.

That meant Eden Hazard continued to lead the line.

Wherever you play him, of course, he can hurt opponents and so it proved in the 17th minute. His initial shot came back to him and the Belgian powered past his marker and, just as he seemed set to shoot, played a perfect pass across the face of goal where Pedro couldn’t miss.

It meant Hazard had set up goals in four consecutive Premier League matches for the first time

In under 20 minutes, the lead was doubled and the match effectively won.

So many of the Premier League 2018 news stories have focused on Hazard this term and he was superb yet again.

Willian released the Chelsea number 10 and as he outpaced the home defence, the outcome was never in doubt.

The only surprise was that this was his first goal for nine games.

From that moment, the unsung heroes of the top flight in the first half of the season – launched by the notable scalp of defeating Man Utd in their first home match of the campaign– were beaten.

Antonio Rudiger came close to heading home just before half-time as Brighton were very much second best and Hazard showed he is human within a minute of the restart when he failed to connect with a gilt-edged opportunity.

Had Marco Alonso not seen his drive clip the outside of the post, the hosts may have been totally deflated but, literally with the next attack, they were back in the game.

Brighton & Hove Albion failed to defeat Premier League 2018 betting odds

Solly March’s effort came up short for Brighton & Hove Albion to win vs Chelsea

Bernardo nodded a dangerous cross back across goal and Solly March got to the ball before David Luiz to flick home.

Thirteen of Brighton’s 20 league goals this season have come via a set-piece with the returning Glenn Murray’s goals alone worth nine points (a joint league-high with Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Everton’s Richarlison).

However, Murray was largely starved of service as the multi-millionaires of Chelsea made their dominance tell and they saw the match out fairly comfortably.

It was a much-needed victory for Chelsea who had lost their last two Premier League away games to Spurs and Wolves, having sustained just one defeat in the previous nine (won seven, drawn one).

Key statistics

Hazard now has a league-high nine assists, more than double the tally he managed in 34 appearances last season.

Striker Alvaro Morata missed out altogether after suffering a knee injury against MOL Vidi in their midweek Europa League encounter, prompting speculation Sarri may be tempted to delve in once the transfer market reopens next month.

Chelsea have now scored 37 goals in the Premier League this season; their most at this stage of a campaign since 2014-15 when they won the title (38).

Chelsea have won all six of their league games against Brighton by an aggregate score of 14-2.

The Seagulls have lost the last nine meetings, conceding 20 goals and scoring just twice.

Brighton have not defeated Chelsea in any competition since 1933 when they won 2-1 in an FA Cup third round tie.

Brighton have lost just two of their last 11 Premier League home games (won five, drawn four), and failed to score in only one of the last 15.

However, five of their six home defeats in the division have come against last season’s top six.

Brighton manager Chris Hughton is winless in his last nine meetings with Chelsea.

Kepa Arrizabalaga has not kept consecutive league clean sheets since August 2017 for Athletic Club in La Liga.

What’s next?

Two exciting fixtures await for Brighton. There’s a south-coast derby against Bournemouth next weekend and then Arsenal are the visitors to the Amex for a Boxing Day teatime clash.

Chelsea now have back-to-back home matches this week.

Bournemouth are the visitors to Stamford Bridge in midweek for a League Cup quarter-final before it’s back to the league next Saturday (December 22) when Leicester are in town.

That is followed by a trip to near neighbours Watford on Boxing Night.

 

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Hibs win ‘annoys’ Lennon

Neil Lennon was both delighted and annoyed after his Hibernian team defeated Celtic 2-0 at Easter Road on Sunday.

The Edinburgh side have allowed a good start to the season slip way with a poor couple of months, seeing them drop to eighth in the Scottish Premiership table.

The home side made the perfect start when Vykintas Slivka struck after 46 seconds with a cool finish inside the box.

Celtic were poor in the opening half and Florian Kamberi finished a superb second-half counter attack with an emphatic finish to give Hibs the daylight they required, making it back-to-back home league wins over Brendan Rodgers' side.

Lennon was delighted to see off his old team, but also somewhat frustrated that his team haven't matched that level of performance recently.

"I'm delighted, considering the circumstances and the lack of depth we had in the squad, it's a remarkable performance really," the Hibs boss told Sky Sports.

"It annoy me, when I consider some of the games we have played in the last couple of months, and then we go and produce a performance like that. Two weeks ago against Kilmarnock we were pathetic and then today we beat the champions, and we deserved to beat them as well."

Hibs host Rangers in Leith in midweek and Lennon is challenging his players to show the same form against Steven Gerrard's outfit.

"We've got another big game now on Wednesday night, we're not jumping through hoops at the minute," he added.

"We're starting to look like the team we can be again. But you can't save your performances for the big games. You've got to do it week in, week out. It gets us back in the mix now for top-six, which pleases me going into the New Year.

"We've got to build on the last two performances, because they've been excellent."

Hibs are 5/2 to beat Rangers on Wednesday. The Light Blues are 1/1 with the draw priced at 13/5.

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Dier to sit out festive programme

Tottenham Hotspur will have to do without utility man Eric Dier for the whole of the festive period after he underwent appendix surgery.

The 24-year-old England international was absent as Spurs defeated Burnley 1-0 at Wembley on Saturday, with the Premier League club confirming that Dier has had to undergo an operation, meaning he will be out of action for several weeks.

An official club statement confirmed: "Eric Dier undergone surgery to remove his appendix.

"The England international was diagnosed with appendicitis after contacting our medical staff due to acute abdominal pain. He received immediate treatment to assess and then remove the appendix.

"He will now undergo a period of recovery before commencing rehabilitation and it is expected he will return to training with the squad in January."

Dier joined Spurs in the summer of 2014, having started his professional career in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon and he has since made almost 200 appearances for the Londoners in all competitions.

He has also won 38 caps for England and was a member of the Three Lions squad who reached the World Cup semi-finals in Russia earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Spurs return to action on Wednesday evening when they face North London rivals Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the League Cup.

Tottenham can be backed at 9/1 to win 2-1 in 90 minutes at the Emirates Stadium, with Spurs 6/1 to go all the way and lift the League Cup for the fifth time in their history.

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Dutch defender in doubt for Glory trip

Sydney FC's impressive 3-1 win over Western Sydney came at a cost, with Jop van der Linden now in doubt for the club's meeting with leaders Perth Glory.

The import defender suffered a hamstring injury in the victory at ANZ Stadium, which was a quality response from the Sky Blues after they had gone down 3-1 at home to Wellington.

Van der Linden fell awkwardly after an attempted tackle in the 15th minute, and the Dutchman may need to be replaced against the unbeaten Glory.

Asked about van der Linden's injury, coach Steve Corica said: "I'm not 100 per-cent sure, I think it was a little bit of a hamstring. I don't know how bad it is yet; I haven't seen him, (but) there's a little bit of a twinge there."

The Sky Blues trailed to a goal from Oriol Riera but came from behind to continue their dominance in meetings with their rivals – it was their fifth derby win in a row.

Corica had needed to go into the match without van der Linden's centre-back partner Alex Wilkinson due to a virus. Wilkinson's replacement, Aaron Calver, lasted 64 minutes before he too exited the match due to cramping.

"He hasn't played for quite a while; it was only normal, to come back and with heavy conditions, to start cramping up," said Corica of Calver.

"He'll be better off for it and he'll be fine next week – Jop, probably not."

Sydney FC, who are gunning for a third consecutive Premier's Plate, face a run of four big games now bookended by trips to Perth.

In between they have festive period home games against Brisbane Roar and Central Coast, who boast just one victory between them so far this season.

Sydney FC are 17/10 to win their next game against Perth Glory, who are 6/4 with the draw 12/5.

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