Improving Barca must not relax against Huesca, warns Koeman

By Sports Desk March 14, 2021

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman has warned against complacency as his side look to cut the gap to Atletico Madrid with victory over rock-bottom Huesca on Monday.   

The Catalan giants have not lost in LaLiga since they slipped to a 2-1 defeat away at Cadiz on December 5.   

Indeed, their run of 16 top-flight games without defeat – which has included 13 wins – is the best current unbeaten streak of any team in the five major European leagues.   

Atleti were held to a 0-0 draw by Getafe on Saturday, giving Barca the opportunity to get within four points of the league leaders if they overcome Huesca at Camp Nou.   

Koeman, though, is taking nothing for granted and wants his side to be fully focused, despite facing opponents who have recorded just one win in their last 20 away league games in the top flight.   

"First we have to win tomorrow, but we are closing the gap," Koeman told the media.

"It [the unbeaten run] is a demonstration that we have improved, but there are no easy games. Those from below fight not to be relegated and those from above, to qualify for Europe.  

"You don't have to look at the table but go to win every game. We can't fail any more. Atletico Madrid is going strong and Real Madrid is there too. You have to go game by game."  

He added: "I have always said that it is a very long season. The points that Atletico have obtained is not normal.  

"Atletico is very competitive. They haven't lost much either. They lacked effectiveness yesterday and had the match to win. In Getafe, they had many clear opportunities. It is a very strong team and you have to fight until the last match. 

"Our trajectory since the away defeat to Cadiz has been good." 

Barca were dumped out of the Champions League in midweek by Paris Saint-Germain despite taking 21 shots to the Ligue 1 side's seven in the second leg, with Lionel Messi missing a crucial penalty with the score at 1-1 in Paris.  

Koeman was impressed by what he saw but wants his side to make sure they have a clinical edge in front of goal. 

"It is the maximum that can be asked of the players," he added. "The level of the other day but with greater effectiveness. 

"If we analyse this season, where we have lost unnecessary points it has been for not having the effectiveness for a team like Barcelona.  

"They even told me that in the 6-1 comeback [against PSG in 2017] there weren't as many opportunities as we had in Paris." 

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    Stafford, who had never previously won a playoff game in the NFL, has led the Rams to victories over the Arizona Cardinals and defending champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to reach this stage.

    The Rams finished ahead of the Cardinals and the 49ers to win the NFC West this season and go into the game at SoFi Stadium – which will also host the Super Bowl - as narrow favourites.

    But that status comes despite the Rams having struggled against their divisional rivals in recent seasons. The Niners have won the last six meetings, including both of the regular season clashes in 2021.

    In Week 18, the Rams led 17-0 before the Niners stormed back to win 27-24 in overtime and book their place in the playoffs as a wildcard team.

    Stafford has only played in the two most recent games in the six-game streak but was asked if his teammates had a mental block against San Francisco.

    "No, we just have got to go out there and play good football," he said.

    "We had our chances last time we played them to win the game, whether it was a four-minute situation for us on offense, a two-minute situation on defense and we still had a shot in overtime as well. 

    "It's a really good football team. It's two really good football teams going after each other, seen each other twice this year, we’re going to see each other for a third time. 

    "Not a bunch of secrets. Just who can step up to the plate and make the plays when we need to make them."

    Stafford has found the build-up to the NFC Championship Game more normal than for the Rams' previous two postseason clashes.

    "Obviously excited about the opportunity, but going about it kind of as a normal week - it’s the first normal week we've had in a little bit," said the former Detroit Lions QB.

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    Rams head coach Sean McVay was this week forced to deny Niners boss Kyle Shanahan – who worked with him in Washington - was in his head.

    "No," insisted McVay. "What I do have is respect for these guys. They've done a great job. 

    "You look at it, you got to play well in that three-and-a-half-hour window that we're allotted. You look at the last time that we played them, we didn't finish the game. 

    "This is a really good football team. We have a lot of respect for them. We're competing and preparing to the best of our ability to go out and see if we can advance. 

    "But this is a really good team. Kyle is an excellent coach. They have great players, great coaches, good schemes. It's why they're in the NFC Championship."

    Shanahan, meanwhile, felt McVay should not have been asked the question.

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    "We're coaches. Watch what's going on out on that field and some of the players out there and the people that are competing.

    "To think that it's about Sean and I... I know that he doesn't feel that way and he knows that I don't feel that way.

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    Getting wide receiver Cooper Kupp involved is likely to be key for the Rams after he became the first player to win the NFL receiving triple crown since 2005 this season. 

    He followed that achievement by putting up 183 receiving yards against Tampa Bay, which was second-most in a playoff game in Rams history behind Tom Fears in the 1950 Divisional Round (198). 

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    They need two straight wins at SoFi Stadium – which will also host the Super Bowl on February 13 – to make history.

    The play of Garoppolo has come under scrutiny in the playoffs despite San Francisco's advance.

    In their two wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, he had zero touchdowns and two interceptions, with passing yard totals of 172 and 131 respectively.

    His future has been in doubt ever since the Niners traded up at huge cost to select QB Trey Lance at number three overall in the 2021 draft.

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    Garoppolo also led the Niners to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, resulting in an agonising loss to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

    He could only play in six games last season as the whole Niners roster was decimated with injuries but led the team in 15 regular season contests in 2021.

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    "But Jimmy's a very good quarterback - he doesn't worry about any of that stuff. He doesn't worry about social media. That's why he's a little similar to me.

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    "He's gone through some ups and downs while he's been here, like most quarterbacks do, but he's the same guy. And that's why people, first and foremost, respect him as a human, as a person.

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    Asked if he had a strategy to cope, he said: "Well, friends, family, they always seem to remind me of those things, but I don’t know.

    "Just knowing yourself and knowing who you are plays a big part of that, because if you get lost in it and start believing some of those things, it could take you down the wrong road.

    "So I don’t know, I think it’s just about knowing yourself as a player, as a person, and as long as these guys in this locker room have faith in me and belief in me, that is all I really care about."

    The Niners have won six straight games over the Rams in their regular-season series, with a dramatic comeback 27-24 overtime victory over LA in Week 18 getting them into the playoffs as a wildcard team.

    But it is NFC West champions the Rams who go into the contest as narrow favourites having knocked off defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional Round.

    The 49ers, meanwhile, won 13-10 in Green Bay despite failing to score an offensive touchdown.

    They were just the ninth team ever to win a playoff game in that way - NFL teams were previously 8-103 in playoff games without a scrimmage touchdown.

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    The Russian, who came from two sets down to see off Felix Auger-Aliassime in the last round, triumphed 7-6 (7-5) 4-6 6-4 6-1 to set up a final with Rafael Nadal.

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    He accused Tsitsipas' father of coaching from the sidelines and received a warning for his persistent complaining, but the second seed also managed to channel his aggression into a stellar performance.

    The first set went the distance after Tsitsipas, who employed a bold approach in taking the match to Medvedev, fended off three break points when serving at 4-4.

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    Tsitsipas maintained his positive attitude and broke in the opening game of the second set, only to surrender that advantage in a sloppy sixth game as his accuracy abandoned him.

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    DATA SLAM: Medvedev clinical behind first serve

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    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
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    Tsitsipas – 35/32

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
    Medvedev – 13/4
    Tsitsipas – 5/1

    BREAK POINTS WON
    Medvedev – 4/12
    Tsitsipas – 2/4

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