Real Madrid's coach Mourinho gestures during his Spanish First Division soccer match against Malaga in Malaga

Real Madrid loss forces consideration of the unthinkable


Given the quality Málaga has shown this year, it’s not a huge surprise that Real Madrid would lose in Andalusia. That they gave up three goals, never led, and benched their captain for a game that left them 16 points behind league-leading Barcelona adds emotional weight to the bottom line results.

Real Madrid aren’t just struggling. They’re sliding, and with the lack of urgency in the squad, it’s not difficult to imagine them free falling without a severe change of approach.

After a scoreless first half at the Rosaleda, Málaga midfielder Isco opened the scoring before an own goal pulled El Real back even. Substitute Roque Santa Cruz was resurrected to post a second half double, with a consolation goal from Karim Benzema leaving Real Madrid 3-2 losers.

The win moves Málaga fourth in Spain with 31 points through 17 games. They’re two points back of Real, who’ve only managed one point from their last two games.

Real Madrid’s closer to 13th place Sevilla than their rival Barcelona. If José Mourinho was dubious of Real’s title chances last week, he can no longer have any doubts. All that’s left for Los Blancos is Champions League (and, at this rate, qualifying for next year’s Champions League).

MORE: Implications of benching Iker Casillas

It’s almost unthinkable to suggest this, but you have to wonder if the José Mourinho-Real Madrid marriage is destined to end before the sides’ anticipated summer divorce. Still, all trends are pointing in that direction. An already down season is starting to get worse on all fronts. Real’s losing touch with Atlético in league, let alone Barcelona. They’re trailing in Copa del Rey to Celta Vigo, and they were clearly second best to Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League group.

For a club obsessed with winning a 10th European title, the team’s current slide is unacceptable. Were Los Merengues struggling yet still looked a good bet to win in February, the team’s current struggles could be accepted. But Mourinho seems to have no answers to a side that’s failing to execute. Their play suggest that, despite advantages all over the pitch, Real Madrid may struggle to get past Manchester United in Champions League’s knockout round.

The situation is starting to mirror the one that befell Mourinho at Chelsea. Despite the coach’s obvious qualities, Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich was put in a situation where the otherwise ludicrous notion of change for change’s sake could actually help. While decisions to fire a coach have to be considered in light of who’s available, the decision-making process changes when a coach’s message is starting to fall on deaf ears. A new man with new ideas might help, even if under most circumstances those ideas would be inferior to Mourinho’s.

MORE: Mourinho sends best wishes to Tito Vilanova

Eventually, Mourinho and Chelsea parted ways. The Blues went on to the 2008 Champions League final with Avram Grant, one of the worst managers in English soccer over the last five years. A year later, Carlo Ancelotti moved to London from Milan, and Chelsea reclaimed the league title.

The amazing part of the parallel is the speed with which things changed. True, Mourinho was coming off his first non-title year at Chelsea when he was dismissed, but in only three seasons, the man had crafted a legend. That he would leave the team within a year-plus of a title was shocking. But in Madrid, the turn has been just as quick. Just eight months ago, Real Madrid seemed destined for a domestic title and a Champions League final meeting with Barcelona (a meeting that never happened).

MORE: Kaka likely to stay, according to coach

Now, Real’s grasping at straws. They benched Iker Casillas today, a seemingly desperate attempt to inject some fear into a team that’s lacked urgency all season.

Soon, Florentino Perez may try the same plan. If Mourinho, destined to leave in May regardless, can’t get more out of this team, rolling the dice on change for change’s sake becomes a low risk move for El Real.

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.

Phil Neville praises Juan Mata’s play to Manchester United

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Juan Mata has appeared in 116 matches for Manchester United since moving to Old Trafford in 2014. In that time, Mata has scored 29 goals and recorded 18 assists.

Despite his performance for the team, some thought Mata would be moved when Jose Mourinho came to town, including former United player and assistant coach Phil Neville.

Neville told Sky Sports, “I actually thought he would be the first out of the door when Jose came, but he’s actually becoming one of the most important players.”

Neville praised Mata’s contributions and versatility for United. “He is never injured, he provides a lot of assists, he plays in two or three different positions, and he scores important goals.”

Manchester United has lacked an identity under Mourinho and recently faltered in the Premier League as the team is winless in its last three matches.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Could Mata be the answer to some of United’s problems?

The Spaniard is a classic No. 10 with the ability to dictate his team’s attack and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Mata can also put the ball in the back of the net as evidenced by his winner against Manchester City in the EFL Cup.

Mourinho has options in the center midfield with the likes of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick in addition to Mata on the roster.

However, given the team’s Premier League struggles, it could be worth giving Mata a chance as the team’s No. 10.