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La Liga 2021-22 season: Five things to watch as Barcelona move on from Lionel Messi, Real Madrid tweak defense

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La Liga 2021-22 season: Five things to watch as Barcelona move on from Lionel Messi, Real Madrid tweak defense

The 2021-22 La Liga season officially kicks off on Friday with Valencia facing Getafe, while title contenders Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona play this weekend in what’s expected to be another three-horse race for the title after a thrilling finish to last season. Atleti are the reigning champions and are back to win another, while Real and Barca have made some inexpensive moves as they look to return to the Spanish summit.

Ahead of action kicking off, here are five things to watch early on in the season:

1. Where do Barcelona go from here?

A promising 2021-22 season was derailed with the news this month that Barca could not re-sign their superstar Lionel Messi due to financial rules put in place by La Liga, resulting in the legendary player heading to Paris Saint-Germain. They went from La Liga contenders to potentially out of Europe just like that. Without their man, the player that has carried them time and time again, a lot will be asked of guys like Pedri, Sergio Busquets and more.  

The team did land Memphis Depay, the talented Dutch attacker, on a free transfer, giving Ronald Koeman some more depth going forward, but he’s hardly Messi. It will be interesting how things look early, but the expectation is a front three of Ousmane Dembele, Griezmann and Depay. 

While the defense has needed some help, the addition of Eric Garcia could be important, but all eyes will be on the attack and if it can return to its prolific ways without the best player in the world.

The pressure is on Ronald Koeman right away. 

2. Can Real defense cope without Ramos and Varane?

The new-look Real Madrid backline figures to feature Eder Militao and David Alaba. Those are two really good players that most teams would be thrilled to have, but the pressure is on them as they aim to replace the dynamic duo of Sergio Ramos (PSG) and Raphael Varane (Manchester United). And losing Ramos also puts pressure on the Real attack as he’s arguably the most prolific scoring defender in decades. He’s got over 100 career club goals to his name and had double digit goals in three of the last five seasons (he was hurt for a good chunk of last season). 

Militao or Alaba are not scoring machines, but the Brazilian can be a threat in the air, while Alaba could take over the attacking set-piece duties for Carlo Ancelotti. They’ll need to build their chemistry quickly, and if Real contend for anything, it will be because they’ve figured out how to fit into this new system as the expectation is for the attack to take a step forward after so many injuries last season.

3. Atleti looking to go back-to-back

Atleti are just never going to get the respect of legendary clubs like Barca and Real, but boy do they deserve it after an incredible run last season, while facing adversity late to hold on. They figure to be even better this season as they haven’t lost anything. In comes Copa America winner Rodrigo de Paul from Udinese who could add some creativity to the midfield, and they return everybody. If Luis Suarez can defeat father time and continue to score, and if Joao Felix can for once live up to his price tag, they can win multiple trophies. 

4. Villarreal looking to build off of first major trophy

Mr. Europa League Unai Emery did it again, winning the competition with Villarreal in what was the club’s first major trophy. A strong base of players, though some may be past their prime, this team is now in the UEFA Champions League thanks to winning the Europa League last season. They haven’t been forced to sell any key pieces and should battle Sevilla for fourth place this coming season. With Gerard Moreno leading the attack with his prolific scoring, they are a team to truly watch in Spain. 

Don’t be surprised if they get a tough group in UCL, finish third, go to the Europa League and win it again. 

5. Can Bordalas work his magic at Valencia? 

The glory years of Valencia feel like ages ago, but it was just a few years back where they were trending upwards with Marcelino, beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final. Then the team imploded, as it seems to do every other year, with Marcelino fired before the season two campaigns ago, the club being run into the ground by a careless owner in Peter Lim, and the future of the club was hanging in the balance. It’s unclear where things are headed, if a sale could happen, or what, but after toying with relegation, they finally did something right — hired a great manager. Jose Bordelas, the 57-year-old former Getafe manager, knows how to do more with less. He turned Getafe into a Europa League squad after getting them promoted from the second division. 

Now, as has been the case lately, the cash-strapped club hasn’t been able to bring in much of anything. But he still has a strong base of players and a ton of young talent to work with. Having guys like Jose Gaya, Carlos Soler, Maxi Gomez, Gonzalo Guedes, American Yunus Musah and more, there is serious potential. He’ll have a tough job pleasing a demanding fan base and a fragmented front office, but don’t be surprised if he has them pushing Europa League spots right away. 

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Messi in line to see first PSG action on Sunday

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Messi in line to see first PSG action on Sunday

Lionel Messi has been included in Paris Saint-Germain‘s squad for Sunday’s Ligue 1 trip to Reims.

Messi, 34, signed a two-year deal with PSG with an option for a third year after his contract with Barcelona expired, but he has yet to feature in the squad since joining on Aug. 10.

PSG forward Kylian Mbappe, who is the subject of transfer interest from Real Madrid before the window shuts on Tuesday, was also included alongside Messi and Brazil forward Neymar.

Messi has not played since winning the Copa America with Argentina against Brazil on July 11.

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“He is very motivated. He’s a great professional who is adapting very fast to his new teammates and to a new context,” PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino said Saturday. “He has the capacity to adapt to a new league.”

Oscar Garcia’s Reims have yet to taste defeat this season, but the former Barcelona player and academy coach is under no illusions about the danger Messi carries.

“Nobody’s ever found the formula or the way to stop him as an individual,” he said. “I’d have preferred not to face him, because it would mean that he is still at Barcelona!

“But for the French league it’s a very positive sign that the best players in the world, or the best in the world in this case, can come to this league. For me and my players it’s a challenge to play against the best team in Europe, and I would say in the world.”

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Lionel Messi ‘Determined to Help Build Something Special’ at PSG After Barcelona Exit

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Lionel Messi ‘Determined to Help Build Something Special’ at PSG After Barcelona Exit

SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images

It’s official: Lionel Messi, after playing his entire professional career for Barcelona, is now a member of Paris Saint-Germain. 

Paris Saint-Germain @PSG_English

A new 💎 in Paris!

PSGxMESSI ❤️💙 pic.twitter.com/scrp1su9a6

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Messi waving to fans from Paris 👋 @ESPNFC

(via @FCBW_A7)pic.twitter.com/BnrvqHYCgF

Messi appeared at the club for his signing Tuesday and wasted little time in expressing his excitement for the stunning move.

“I am excited to begin a new chapter of my career at Paris Saint-Germain,” he told reporters. “Everything about the club matches my football ambitions. I know how talented the squad and the coaching staff are here. I am determined to help build something special for the club and the fans.”

What will be considered special for PSG? Well, a return to the top of the league after Lille claimed the Ligue 1 title last year—just the second time in the past nine seasons that the Parisian giants didn’t win the league—would be a start. 

But the real white whale for PSG is triumphing in Europe and winning the Champions League, a feat it’s yet to accomplish. Two seasons ago the club reached the UCL final, only to lose 1-0 to Bayern Munich. 

Last year they lost in the semifinals to eventual Champions League runner-up Manchester City. 

Messi is no stranger to such a stage, having won four UCL titles during his time at Barcelona. Adding the six-time Ballon d’Or winner will give PSG arguably the most formidable attack in the world, reuniting him with former teammate and superstar winger Neymar along with the brightest young talent in the game, striker Kylian Mbappe. 

Here are the numbers those three contributed in their respective leagues last season: 

  • Messi: 30 goals, nine assists in 32 La Liga matches.
  • Mbappe: 27 goals, seven assists in 31 Ligue 1 matches.
  • Neymar: Nine goals, five assists in 18 Ligue 1 matches. 

Injuries have limited Neymar’s league appearances in recent seasons, but if this trio stays healthy, PSG will score at alarming rates. The side is yet again the prohibitive favorite in Ligue 1 and will be among the favorites in the Champions League. 

It is strange to see Messi donning a kit that isn’t for Barcelona or Argentina. It’s a new era, one he and PSG are hoping will be a very fruitful one. 

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Crypto.com to sponsor UFC fight kits in reported $175 million deal

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Crypto.com to sponsor UFC fight kits in reported $175 million deal

The UFC has revealed its first global fight kit partner.

On Wednesday, the promotion announced that they will be partnering with Crypto.com on a long-term basis where the cryptocurrency site – the first of its kind to partner with the UFC – will have their branding on on athlete’s fight kits in competition, as well as the corners for the fighters.

Sportico is reporting that the partnership is a 10-year deal for $175 million.

The new fight kits are set to be revealed at Saturday’s UFC 264 event, which will be headlined by the third meeting between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor.

“This is a partnership between two companies that are the best at what they do,” said UFC President Dana White in a release. “No company has done more to grow the popularity of combat sports than UFC, and now we’re one of the biggest sports brands on the planet. We can help Crypto.com reach more people around the world through the strength of our brand.”

Check out a photo of the new fight kit featuring the Crypto.com logo courtesy of the UFC:

In addition to the fight kit sponsorship, the UFC also revealed that the partnership will include in-octagon branding during all pay-per-view events and Dana White’s Contender Series.

According to ESPN, “Fighters will not get a direct cut of the UFC’s deal with Crypto.com, a source said. However, they will be able to broker individual deals with the cryptocurrency company and be used as paid brand ambassadors.”

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