Real Madrid loss forces consideration of the unthinkable

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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 Snapshot: NYCFC, HOU play to 1-1 draw… in Connecticut

Photo credit: New York City FC / @NYCFC
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The game in 100 words (or less more): New York City FC entered the weekend having dropped just 12 points (two losses, three draws) at home all season. That, of course, is their record within the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, the third-year MLS club’s temporary home for the foreseeable future. In truth, it was a minor miracle NYCFC hadn’t been forced from their home in the Bronx before Saturday’s clash with the Houston Dynamo, which ended a 1-1 draw at Rentschler Field in Hartford, Conn. Attendance suffered, rightfully so. With the Yankees scheduled to play a make-up game Monday night, NYCFC were made to work out alternative stadium arrangements due to the amount of time required to convert Yankee Stadium into a baseball field once again. Anyway, Maxi Moralez and Mauro Manotas scored the goals, each inside the game’s opening 16 minutes. The point does very little for NYCFC (52 points), who remain 10 points off the pace of Eastern Conference- and Supporters’ Shield-leading Toronto FC, and just four points clear of third-place Chicago Fire; Houston (39) are buoyed a bit more, as they move ahead of Real Salt Lake for the Western Conference’s sixth and final playoff place (for the time being).

[ MORE: MLS weekend preview — ATL host MTL; RSL desperate vs. SEA ]

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Moralez rises up, heads NYCFC ahead — Chances are, when the shortest player on the field scores from a header, somebody missed their marking assignment.

16′ — Manotas beats Johnson off the quick FK — Chances are, when the opponent scores from a quick free kick, somebody fell asleep and wasn’t paying attention.

89′ — Deric protects the upper-90 to preserve a point — Jack Harrison probably thought he’d beaten Tyler Deric into the upper-90, but the Dynamo goalkeeper kept his side level with a stunning Save of the Week nominee.

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

Man of the match: Tyler Deric

Goalscorers: Moralez (6′), Manotas (16′)

PL Sunday preview: Newcastle shoot for top-4 place at Brighton

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
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Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures offers up a meeting of two newly promoted sides in the only game of the day.

[ PL roundup: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Newcastle United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Newcastle’s return to the PL had all the makings of another spectacular flame-out and an immediate return to the Championship — owner Mike Ashley promised manager Rafa Benitez a busy summer of signings, but that never materialized; Benitez’s discontent was widely reported, some going so far as to say he had considered stepping down; the Magpies lost their first two games of the season, failing to score in either — until Jamaal Lascelles decided he was having no more of it.

Lascelles, Newcastle’s 23-year-old captain and star center back, has helped Benitez’s boys to three straight victories, in which they’ve conceded just one goal (in last week’s 2-1 victory over Stoke City), has united a group of players which seemed headed for self-destruction just four short weeks ago. The key, according to Lascelles, is accountability evenly shared by every player in the dressing room.

[ MORE: Pochettino — “I am in love with Harry Kane” ]

“A couple of seasons back, we’d go a goal down or concede a goal and heads would drop,” Lascelles said. “We’d be looking at each other like, ‘who’s going to step up?’ But everyone steps up, the 11 of us. This group of boys are excellent, we just keep going.”

Three points on Sunday would see Newcastle leapfrog Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, two sides level on 11 points and presently fighting over fourth place, to finish the weekend in the PL’s final Champions League place (after six of 38 games, of course).

[ MORE: Mourinho bewildered by sending-off; Man United beat Southampton ]

As for Brighton, returning home to Falmer Stadium is a welcome development after losing twice at Bournemouth (first in the PL, then in the League Cup) in the span of four days. In charge of Brighton is another former Newcastle manager, Chris Hughton, who guided his new club to promotion from the Championship last season (just as he did for Newcastle in 2010). Brighton held the league lead heading into the season’s final days before the Seagulls faltered and Newcastle pounced, but Hughton says there isn’t any ill will onto which to be held.

“There shouldn’t be, because they deserved it,” Hughton said. “We had opportunities in the last three games to clinch the title and we weren’t good enough at that particular moment to do that. All credit goes to Newcastle for doing it and certainly there’s no revenge. We are up against a good team that’s in good form at the moment.”

INJURIES: Brighton — OUT: Steve Sidwell (back), Sam Baldock (calf), Beram Kayal (leg); QUESTIONABLE: Izzy Brown (hamstring) | Newcastle — OUT: Aleksandar Mitrovic (suspended), Paul Dummett (hamstring), Florian Lejeune (ankle), Karl Darlow (ankle)

Klopp, Henderson: Coutinho shows he’s “highest quality player”

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As it turns out, it was with good reason that Liverpool refused to lose superstar midfielder Philippe Coutinho this summer, despite big-money advances from Barcelona, and the player’s admission that he himself wanted to make the move.

[ PL roundup: Goals galore on a wild Saturday ]

On Saturday, the 25-year-old Brazilian made his second straight in Premier League play, and reminded everyone just why a club like Barcelona would pursue him with unrelenting vigor. He started with an assist to Mohamed Salah for the game’s opening goal, and chipped in a score of his own, a stunning free kick (WATCH HERE), to double the lead a few minutes later. The Reds would hang (just barely) for a 3-2 win away to Leicester City.

Following the game, Liverpool manager was full of praise for Coutinho, calling him “the highest quality player,” which is something he believes was never in doubt — quotes from the BBC:

“Nobody was in doubt about this. It is clear he is the highest quality player. We are happy to have him around.”

As for the performance overall, Klopp was largely pleased, even if being so required him to completely ignore the (continued) defensive frailties of his side:

“It is not a time to be completely cool but overall I was happy with our performance. The boys deserved the three points. The free kick for the first goal was not a free-kick and it was a foul on Simon [for the second goal].

“At the start of the second half we played the same football like Leicester — kind of hectic. Simon saved the penalty and then I think we really deserved the win.

“I really thought in a moment like this so many things are positive. The three points are the proof for the public that we are still here, everything is good. Let’s make the next step together.”

Captain Jordan Henderson joined Klopp in his praise for Coutinho, echoing similar sentiments about the best player employed at Anfield since the departure of Luis Suarez:

“Coutinho is a fantastic player. He produces magical things at crucial times of the game. This will give us good confidence going forward.”

Bundesliga wrap: BVB stays red hot, Hoffenheim goes second (video)

Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP
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Borussia Dortmund is alone atop the Bundesliga table with 16 points and a plus-18 goal differential, while Hoffenheim moved ahead of Bayern Munich for second place on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]


Borussia Dortmund 6-1 Borussia Monchengladbach

It wasn’t the Christian Pulisic show this time, as star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang bagged a hat trick, Maximilian Philipp added two goals, and Julian Weigl’s knuckling shot from distance rounded out the scoring. Lars Stindl scored for the visitors.

Pulisic went 64 minutes for the hosts.

Hoffenheim 2-0 Schalke

A second-straight start for American central midfielder Weston McKennie unfortunately yieled a second-successive loss, as Dennis Geiger scored in the 13th minute and Lukas Rupp salted away the win in the 90th. McKennie went 74 minutes, won seven tackles, and covered 9.47 kilometers in the loss.

RB Leipzig 2-1 Eintracht Frankfurt

Jean-Kevin Augustin and Timo Werner gave last season’s upstarts a 2-0 before Ante Rebic set the stage for a promising final quarter hour with a 77th minute tally.

Elsewhere
Bayern Munich 2-2 Wolfsburg — Friday
Stuttgart 0-0 Augsburg
Mainz 1-0 Hertha Berlin
Werder Bremen 0-0 Freiburg
Hannover vs. Koln — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Hamburg — Noon ET