Barcelona fought back to earn a 2-1 win at Elche on Sunday as a late penalty from Memphis Depay ensured they continued their revival after a difficult start to the season.
Having fallen as low as ninth back in November, when former coach Ronald Koeman was sacked, Xavi Hernandez’s revitalised Barca have climbed into La Liga’s top three with 48 points, leapfrogging Real Betis in third place.
Mid-table Elche opened the scoring right before half-time when Pedri tried to clear the ball but gifted a perfect assist to Fidel Chavez, who out-ran Dani Alves and scored with an angled shot just inside the right post.
Ferran Torres scored the equaliser in the 61st minute after great play from Ousmane Dembele down the right flank. His cross was deflected by Jordi Alba and the former Manchester City forward, in the right place at the right time, turned it home from close range.
Barca’s winner came after the video assistant referee spotted a handball from an Elche defender inside the area and Depay rifled his penalty into the top-left corner.
Meanwhile, Joao Felix scored twice as he helped Atletico Madrid earn a 3-1 win at Real Betis, ensuring they leapfrogged their rivals into fourth place in the standings.
Atletico are tied on 48 points with third-placed Barcelona, who won 2-1 at Elche, although the Catalans have a game in hand. Both teams trail leaders Real Madrid by 15 points.
Betis, who started the weekend in third place, dropped below Barca and Atletico to fifth place with 46 points from 27 games.
Felix opened the scoring in the first minute with a close-range strike from an Angel Correa cross.
Betis equalised just before the break when Cristian Tello fired home an angled shot from the edge of the box.
Atletico dominated following the break. Felix scored his second after Marcos Llorente led a quick counter-attack before crossing to the Portuguese, who made the final touch from inside the box.
Substitute Antoine Griezmann, who is slowly working his way back from injury, provided the cross that allowed Thomas Lemar to complete the 3-1 victory in the 80th minute.
Elsewhere, relegation-threatened Cadiz boosted their survival chances with a 2-0 win over Rayo Vallecano to move within one point of 17th-placed Granada.
Serie A: Giroud goal sends Milan back to summit
Olivier Giroud’s second-half goal sent AC Milan back to the top of Serie A as they battled to a 1-0 win away at Napoli on Sunday.
Victory means that Stefano Pioli’s table-toppers now have 60 points, two ahead of city rivals and reigning champions Inter – who have played a game fewer – and three more than Napoli in third.
Chances were few and far between in a nervous encounter, with the hosts only managing two shots on target throughout the 90 minutes at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
After a low-key first half in which neither side really threatened, Giroud netted the only goal of the game as he turned in Davide Calabria’s cross-shot four minutes after the break.
Adam Ounas curled one wide for Napoli and Hirving Lozano dragged an effort wide late on as they tried in vain to find an equaliser.
Theo Hernandez and Alexis Saelemaekers were denied by smart saves from Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina on the counter in the closing stages as they sought to seal the victory.
Meanwhile, a first-half goal from Alvaro Morata was enough to give Juventus a 1-0 victory at home to Spezia in Serie A as they tightened their grip on a Champions League spot.
The hosts, who went close on the quarter-hour mark through midfielder Arthur Melo, took the lead after 21 minutes when the Brazilian latched on to a poor clearance from Spezia goalkeeper Ivan Provedel, picking out Manuel Locatelli on the edge of the box before the Italian fed Morata, who netted his first league goal since December.
Emmanuel Gyasi and Kevin Agudelo were both denied by Wojciech Szczesny from close range after the break as Spezia sought a way back into things.
Morata, meanwhile, missed a gilt-edged chance to seal the victory in stoppage time at the end of the game as Juventus held on to secure the win.
Juve move onto 53 points in the fourth and final Champions League spot, where they sit six points above fifth-placed Atalanta, who have played a game fewer.
Fiorentina were made to rue several missed opportunities as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Hellas Verona.
Only two points separated the two teams, who were both desperate for a win to close in on the European places.
Krzysztof Piatek fired Fiorentina ahead in the 10th minute, but Gianluca Caprari equalized from the penalty spot for Verona 10 minutes later.
At the other end of the table, Genoa drew 0-0 against Empoli to move within seven points of safety. Venezia also remained in the bottom three as they lost 4-1 at home to Sassuolo. Torino drew 0-0 at Bologna.
Bundesliga: Hoffenheim go fourth with win over Cologne
Stefan Posch scored the only goal as Hoffenheim beat Cologne 1-0, amid a host of missed chances by both teams, to move up to fourth in the Bundesliga, the last place for Champions League qualification.
Posch’s second-half goal was enough for the visitors to stretch their winning run to four games and move two points clear of Leipzig and Freiburg after their 1-1 draw on Saturday. Nine rounds of fixtures remain.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine again featured prominently in the Bundesliga. Cologne players wore jerseys with ‘Stop War’ written on the front.
John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was played around the stadium before players and fans observed a minute’s silence in solidarity with the victims.
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Highlights: Bayern Munich were held to a 1-1 draw by Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga on Saturday
Hoffenheim forward Ihlas Bebou missed several good opportunities to score, while Anthony Modeste missed the home team’s best chance of the first half when he fired over with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Bebou began the second half with a header against the post and Modeste had a goal ruled out for offside before Posch finally broke the deadlock in the 61st minute when he headed in a cross from Germany defender David Raum.
There were further missed chances for both teams, with Hoffenheim’s Christoph Baumgartner hitting the post when it looked easier to score. Cologne substitute Tim Lemperle headed just wide in injury time.
The scheduled earlier game between second-placed Borussia Dortmund and Mainz was postponed on Friday to March 16 due to a coronavirus outbreak at home team Mainz.
Ligue 1: Monaco’s Martins sinks Marseille
Gelson Martins scored a second half winner as Monaco inflicted more home misery on Marseille with a 1-0 victory in their Ligue 1 encounter on Sunday.
Martins reacted quickest to turn the ball in after Kevin Volland’s shot crashed back off the post. The goal was initially flagged for offside but that decision was overturned by the Video Assistant Referee.
Marseille, who have won only five of their 14 home matches this season, remain in third place in the table with 47 points from 27 games. They trail leaders Paris Saint-Germain by 15 points and are two behind second-placed Nice.
Denis Bouanga scored the only goal as St Etienne climbed out of the relegation zone with a 1-0 home win over Metz, while Troyes claimed a crucial victory in their bid for survival away at bottom side Bordeaux.
Bouanga had a first-half goal ruled out by the Video Assistant Referee for handball, but there was no doubt about his effort on 52 minutes as a poor clearance landed at his feet and he thumped a shot into the back of the net.
Metz, who are second-bottom in the table, thought they had a penalty in the closing stages as Falaye Sacko committed a clear foul on Farid Boulaya in the box, but referee Jeremy Stinat overturned the decision after an infringement in the build-up was spotted.
Troyes did their chances of staying up the world of good after a 2-0 win at ailing Bordeaux.
They had a bit of luck early on when Mama Balde’s penalty was saved by home goalkeeper Gaetan Poussin, who then knocked the ball into the net with his trailing leg for an own goal.
The visitors added a second with five minutes remaining having been awarded a second spot-kick, this time converted by South Africa international Lebo Mothiba, who has recently returned from almost two years on the sidelines with injury.
Rennes moved up to fourth with a 2-0 victory over Angers, their third win in succession but a sixth straight loss for their opponents that has seen them tumble down the table.
Benjamin Bourigeaud and Gaetan Laborde scored the goals for Rennes, who are now a point off the Champions League qualification places.
They have leapfrogged Strasbourg, who were held to a third successive draw by Reims. Jean-Ricner Bellegarde put Strasbourg in front, but Jens Cajuste equalised for the home side with six minutes remaining.
Nantes also kept their Champions League hopes alive with a 2-0 win at home to Montpellier. Goals from Randal Kolo Muani and Willem Geubbels sealed the three points. They climb to sixth, five points behind third-placed Marseille.
Defending champions Lille continued their late push for a European spot by routing 10-man Clermont 4-0 to stay level on points with Nantes.
“If someone had written on a piece of paper all the things that I would experience since joining Barcelona aged nine, reaching the first team at 17, playing for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, living those amazing experiences, I would sign it immediately.”
At 31, Bojan is reflecting on his career. A Champions League winner twice with Barcelona and a folk hero at Stoke City, he has played and scored for Milan, Roma and Ajax. Now he is enjoying a new adventure in Japan alongside his old pal Andres Iniesta.
Iniesta has still got it in case you were wondering.
“He has his ability for life, you know,” Bojan tells Sky Sports. “Of course, he is 37-years-old and not as physically sharp as he was when he was 27. But he is still making the difference for us. Everyone looks to Andres. He is a unique player. He could play on for years.”
Bojan himself is not finished either. He has been in Japan since New Year’s Day preparing for the forthcoming season with Vissel Kobe, embracing the culture on a new continent.
“I always felt I had a special connection to Japanese culture. Everyone wants to visit Japan at some point in their lives. I was talking to my friends about a holiday here last summer. Soon after, I received the offer to play for Vissel. It is a privilege.”
Communication has not been easy. “It is like living in another world here.” A translator is required in the dressing room. But there is lots to admire. “It is how they act, how they treat people. Everyone wants to help. It is a very respectful culture,” he explains.
“I am learning a lot about that culture. I am here to play football and I dedicate my day to that, making sure that my body is ready to compete. But the rest of the day I read books about Japan, I try to visit the typical things here. I want to know as much as I can.”
Although Bojan does not see himself as a teacher, there is much for his team-mates to learn from him too. It has been some journey, one that has includes stays at Montreal and Mainz, but he will forever be associated with perhaps the greatest team there has ever been.
Bojan played 163 gamed for Barcelona in four seasons. He won La Liga three times, the Champions League twice and scored in a Copa del Rey final win. Lionel Messi was the only other player to score at least half a dozen goals for the club in each of those seasons.
It has been years since he visited Camp Nou and it is difficult for him to watch the matches on television now because of the time difference. But he still feels that connection. “I will always be a Barca fan,” he says. “That is not a thing you decide, it is a thing you feel.”
It continues to shape his thinking. “That is the style that I can feel and I believe can bring success.” But he is also a product of his experiences elsewhere, something that he has been reflecting on since completing his qualifications to become a sporting director.
“The way I see football, I want the ball. I played in the best team ever, or one of the best teams ever, playing amazing football. But I also played in teams that did not have the ball and were just running all day. Between these two styles, you create your philosophy.
“Yes, I want technical players. But those technical players, they have to be competitive and they have to know how to work every day as well. At some times in the season, you will not have the ball in games and will have to defend more. You have to find that balance.”
His time at Stoke taught him that there was a world beyond Barcelona in which he could still thrive. He was a key figure in what became a top-half Premier League team under Mark Hughes and the warmth with which he speaks of that experience shines through.
“Stoke, for me, it is my second home,” he says. “It is the place where I enjoyed my football the most.”
But what was it that made it so special?
“The way the fans treated the players. The years when I was there, we had fantastic seasons, finishing ninth in the Premier League, beating the best teams in the league and competing in every game. I enjoyed it everywhere but that was something special.
“My favourite moment was when they sang my name for the first time, the whole stadium. What is this? They sung my name because they respected me, they loved me, not because my name was Bojan. There was a special connection from the day that I arrived.”
Perhaps there is also satisfaction there that he was a success in the Premier League, the competition that he still regards as the world’s best. He had heard the cliches of cold and windy nights in the Midlands. But this child of La Masia managed to make it work.
“It is the best academy in the world. I believe in that philosophy. But let’s be honest, how many players make it at Barcelona? So, the other ones, as soon as you leave, there are only a few clubs that have the same mentality. Elsewhere, it is completely different.
“These players are not ready to play in teams that don’t have the ball, teams that have to fight, teams where the running stats are more important than what you do with the ball. It is another world. These young guys are not really prepared to play in other teams.”
A move to Mainz provided new experiences. “One of the most special days in my career,” he says of the game at Bayern Munich in which his goal helped the relegation-threatened side stay in the Bundesliga. It meant he had scored in Europe’s four major leagues.
Could he go to France and make it five? “You never know, I am still young, only 31.” How about a move to Belgrade, his father’s home city? “It is a part of me the Serbian side. I had some interest in the past from Red Star but it was never the right moment.”
For now, he is enjoying Japan. “The quality is high. One of the things that has surprised me is the intensity of the game here. There are no easy leagues now.” But it will not be too long before thoughts are turning to life after football – a career he is already planning for.
“I have learned a lot from studying to be a sporting director. I prefer it to coaching. A coach has to manage 25 players. The sporting director can really build a team. I like the idea of discovering young talent and focusing more on the human side of the game.”
And when his playing days are over, there will be no regrets.
“Yes, you can say it could have been better. Everything in life could always be better. But it could have been a lot worse. How many players have the quality but did not even make it as a professional? Maybe they were not in the right moment. Maybe they got injured.
“I played four years for Barcelona and scored 40 goals. Many say I was not a success at Barcelona. I say, ‘OK, scoring 40 goals in four years in the best period in the history of Barcelona and you say I did not have success?’ OK, maybe I could have scored 80. But maybe I could have scored less. Maybe I could have not played at all.
“I am completely satisfied with my career. I always consider it a privilege to have experienced everything that I have experienced.
Tammy Abraham’s penalty more than nine minutes into stoppage time ended Roma’s winless run as Jose Mourinho’s scraped a 1-0 victory at 10-man Spezia in Serie A.
Abraham’s penalty came after Roma had hit the woodwork four times and wasted a number of chances at Spezia, who had played most of the match with 10 men after defender Kelvin Amian was sent off at the end of the first half.
It was Roma’s first win in five matches and lifted them up to sixth, six points behind fourth-place Juventus. Spezia remain four points off the relegation zone. All Serie A matches have started five minutes late this weekend accompanied by a peace message following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Roma coach Jose Mourinho was serving the first of a two-match suspension following his actions toward the referee during and after last week’s 2-2 draw against Hellas Verona.
Giovanni Simeone broke his goal drought in style with a second-half hat-trick to help Hellas Verona beat relegation-threatened Venezia 3-1.
They were Simeone’s first goals since mid-December.
David Okereke headed Venezia back into the match nine minutes from time but Simeone completed his hat-trick and sealed the result seven minutes later.
Venezia slipped into the drop zone, three points behind Cagliari after the Sardinian side won 2-1 at Torino.
Bundesliga: Dortmund lose ground on leaders Bayern
Borussia Dortmund stumbled again in the Bundesliga with a 1-1 draw at relegation-threatened Augsburg to let Bayern Munich open up an eight-point lead.
Thorgan Hazard scored in the first half for Dortmund but the visitors failed to build on their lead as Donyell Malen hit the post and were caught out when Noah Sarenren Bazee equalised late on.
The point lifted Augsburg out of the relegation zone on goal difference with Hertha Berlin dropping into the relegation/playoff place with 10 rounds of the league remaining. Hertha have not won in the league since beating Dortmund 3-2 at home on December 18.
Dortmund subsequently lost to Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen in the league, while they were knocked out of the German Cup by second division St Pauli and out of the Europa League last Thursday by Scottish side Rangers.
Hazard scored in the 35th minute when he surged past Augsburg defenders Mads Pedersen and Felix Uduokhai before shooting inside the far post from a tight angle.
But Augsburg stayed in the game and coach Markus Weinzierl brought on Bazee to reinvigorate his team’s attack with 20 minutes remaining. The 25-year-old winger scored the equaliser eight minutes later.
Earlier, Christopher Nkunku’s late goal was enough for Leipzig to reclaim fourth and the last qualification place for the Champions League with a 1-0 win at Bochum.
Nkunku scored in the 82nd minute after Bochum captain Anthony Losilla hit the crossbar and Christopher Antwi-Adjei hit the post for the home team. It was Nkunku’s 14th goal of the season.
La Liga: Villarreal teen makes club history
With four goals from four shots, Yeremy Pino became the first Villarreal player to score four times in a Spanish league game on Sunday.
Pino scored a hat-trick before half-time and added another goal in the second half of Villarreal’s 5-1 home rout of Espanyol.
The 19-year-old Spain forward had never scored more than one goal in a game in his career. He is the third-youngest four-goal scorer in the history of the Spanish league.
It was the eighth win for Villarreal in their last 11 league games, with the only loss coming at Elche in January.
Unai Emery’s team came into the game on the back of a 1-1 draw at home to Juventus in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League.
Keidi Bare scored Espanyol’s lone goal in the second half. Villarreal’s fifth was scored by Boulaye Dia in the final stages of the game at the La Ceramica Stadium.
The win moved Villarreal up to fifth place, three points behind fourth-place Atletico Madrid, who won 2-0 at Celta Vigo on Saturday.
Espanyol’s winless streak reached eight matches in all competitions, with five losses and three draws. They stayed in 14th place.
Ligue 1: Marseille fail to tighten grip in Champions League race
Marseille missed the chance to move three points clear in second place in Ligue 1 after conceding a last-minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw at struggling Troyes.
Striker Yoann Touzghar profited from poor Marseille defending to slide in the equaliser after playmaker Dimitri Payet’s penalty put Marseille ahead in the 28th minute. It was Payet’s club-best ninth league goal of the season.
Second place guarantees entry into next season’s Champions League, with Marseille one point ahead of Nice in third place, and a playoff spot.
Northern side Lens moved into sixth place in the chase for the European places after a 2-1 win at Angers, with Jonathan Clauss’ floating effort looping over goalkeeper Danijel Petkovic in the 77th minute.
Lens are three points behind fourth-place Rennes in the Europa League spot.
Monaco lost 2-1 at home to Reims, despite striker Wissam Ben Yedder’s league-leading 15th goal to move one ahead of PSG forward Kylian Mbappe.
The visitors equalised in the 84th minute when Monaco striker Kevin Volland headed in an own-goal and, soon after Monaco midfielder Jean Lucas was sent off, scored a stoppage-time winner through striker Nathanael Mbuku.
Lorient moved out of the relegation zone with a 1-0 win at Brest as fellow strugglers Bordeaux and Metz both drew.
Bottom side Bordeaux drew 1-1 at Clermont, while 18th-place Metz were held 0-0 at home by Nantes.
Clubs from across Europe showed their support for Ukraine as the line-up for the Europa League and Europa Conference League last-16 was finalised on Thursday.
Ahead of their Europa League play-off second leg game in Naples, Barcelona and Napoli players were photographed with a “stop war” banner.
Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi, a Ukrainian international since 2015, unveiled a “no war in Ukraine” message under his shirt after scoring twice in their aggregate win at Olympiacos.
Latest developments as sport reacts to Ukraine situation
UEFA has moved the Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris
Europe’s governing body is also under pressure to end sponsorship from Russian energy giant Gazprom
Manchester United have dropped Russian state airline Aeroflot as a sponsor
Players will be free to protest against the war in Ukraine without fear of punishment, so long as displays are not offensive
FIFA remain undecided over World Cup play-off matches involving Ukraine and Russia
F1 has announced the Russian Grand Prix will be cancelled
The Haas team joined F1 testing on Friday with its cars missing the logo of Russian sponsor Uralkali
Taras Kacharaba, one of his international team-mates, was pictured draped in a Ukraine flag after Slavia Prague’s win over Fenerbahce in the Europa Conference League. He and his team-mates also wore shirts including a “we stand with Ukraine” message for the pre-match handshakes.
There were a number of shows of support from the stands too, with Dinamo Zagreb fans erecting a banner which read “support to the people of Ukraine”. Supporters of Norweigan side Bodo/Glimt, who knocked Celtic out of the Conference League, held up Ukraine flags en masse to show their solidarity.
Round-up: Free-scoring Barca ease into last 16
Barcelona hit top gear to trounce Napoli 4-2 away from home on Thursday and sail into the last 16 of the Europa League 5-3 on aggregate.
Jordi Alba gave Barca the lead in the eighth minute of the knockout stage play-off second leg with a rare strike on his weaker right foot and Frenkie de Jong put the Catalans further ahead with a curling shot after being teed up by a sumptuous backheel from Ferran Torres.
Lorenzo Insigne’s penalty gave Napoli hope but Gerard Pique restored Barca’s two-goal advantage right before half-time.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang added a fourth in the second period, netting for the fourth time in two games after hitting a hat-trick at Valencia in La Liga on Sunday. Matteo Politano reduced the deficit to two goals in the 87th minute.
Rangers joined Barca in the last 16 thanks to a spirited 2-2 draw at home to Borussia Dortmund in front of a raucous Ibrox crowd to progress 6-2 on aggregate.
James Tavernier got Rangers off to an ideal start by scoring a penalty midway through the first half but goals from Jude Bellingham and Donyell Malen before halftime put Dortmund in front on the night.
One more Dortmund goal would have forced extra-time but Rangers captain Tavernier put the Scottish champions back in control with his second goal of the night.
Real Betis also advanced by holding Zenit St Petersburg to a goalless draw at home and winning 3-2 on aggregate. The Russians were denied a late goal that would have sent the game into extra-time as a VAR review spotted a foul in the build up to Dmitri Chistyakov’s strike.
Portuguese side Braga staged a stunning turnaround to beat Sheriff Tiraspol 2-0 at home and level the tie 2-2, forcing extra-time and a penalty shootout they won 3-2.
Earlier, six-time winners Sevilla were made to sweat to reach the last 16 as they were beaten 1-0 at Dinamo Zagreb and had to survive a nervy finale with 10 men before progressing 3-2 on aggregate.
Porto also had to scrap deep into added time to earn their place in the last 16, drawing 2-2 at Lazio to squeeze through 4-3 on aggregate. RB Leipzig won 3-1 at Real Sociedad to progress 5-3 on aggregate while Atalanta hammered Olympiakos 3-0 to complete a 5-1 aggregate win.