Víctor Valdés comes up huge as Spain wins in Paris

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For years Barcelona supporters have loyally sang the praises of Víctor Valdés, songs which finally rang true during Tuesday’s performance in Paris. Though the Barça keeper, filling in for the injured Iker Casillas, didn’t face many tests, he came up huge the two big chances France had to stay at the top of Europe’s Group I. As a result, Spain was able to get out of Stade de France with a 1-0 win and jump Les Bleus for first in the teams’ group.

It was the first time Spain had ever won a qualifier in Paris.

Valdés’s first act of heroism came when he charged off his line to cut off a chance Franck Ribery had to give France a first half lead.

While Spain’s dominance of possession allowed them to limit France’s chances, the reigning World Champions couldn’t break through for a goal of their own until the 58th minute when Pedro Rodríguez forced a ball past Hugo Lloris.

France’s best chance of the day came on a late restart along the left, with a ball drilled in by Mathieu Valbuena redirected on goal from eight yards out by a diving Patrice Evra. A reflex save from Valdés drew gasps from the crowd while keeping Spain in front.

After their wakeup call, Spain went on to bleed out the rest of the match, a task made easier after France midfielder Paul Progba, making his second appearance for Les Bleus, drew two yellow cards in a one minute span starting in the 77th minute. Reduced to 10 men, France couldn’t build on the two shots they put on Valdés.

But to read too much into that shot total would underestimate France’s threat. Despite Spain holding 75 percent of the possession, there was little to separate the two sides, the Spanish only putting three shots on Lloris while France generated strong chances for Ribery (twice), Blaise Matuidi, Evra, and Raphael Varane.

That’s not to say Spain didn’t have near misses of their own. Xavi missed a sitter in the fifth minute, and Spain should have been awarded a penalty kick when Lloris brought Pedro down midway through the first half.

But near-misses are the currency of the defeated. Victors bask in their points.

The win leaves Spain on 11 points through five games, home draws to France and Finland the only blemishes on their qualifying record. France stays on 10 points, six points up on Georgia for the group’s potential playoff spot.

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.

PL Sunday preview: North London derby; clarity for the top-four?

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images & Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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There’s Super Sunday, and then there’s this Sunday, when six of the top seven sides in the Premier League will be in action…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Manchester United vs. Swansea City — 7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

Injury crisis — noun: see, also: United, Manchester

With five games to go in the PL season, and a top-four place very much within reach — as well as the Europa League trophy — Jose Mourinho is without a half-dozen players whom would have been considered automatic first-choice starters at the season’s start (see below). Fortunately for him, he’s got players like Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan beyond anxious for additional playing time.

Following a 0-0 draw with Manchester City on Thursday, Man United have climbed to within two points of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and control their own destiny as far as finishing in the top-four goes. Following three straight defeats to Swansea in 2014 and 2015, order has somewhat been restored with the Red Devils winning the last two meetings between the sides. As badly as United need three points to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, the Swans need them more in their bid to stave off relegation from the PL (they currently sit three points back of 17th-place Hull City, with a better goal differential).

INJURIES: Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Paul Pogba (leg), Marcos Rojo (knee), Juan Mata (groin), Marouane Fellaini (suspension), Chris Smalling (knee), Phil Jones (toe) | Swansea — OUT: Angel Rangel (foot), Nathan Dyer (achilles), Wayne Routledge (hernia)

Everton vs. Chelsea — 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com

Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they are winless in their last two visits (PL and FA Cup), looks to be Chelsea’s toughest remaining fixture as Antonio Conte‘s side seeks to lift the club’s fifth PL trophy (sixth in all eras). After a pair of losses in four games’ time saw their lead cut from 10 points to four, the Blues reasserted themselves as the team to beat with an FA Cup semifinal victory over Tottenham Hotspur, their last remaining challenger, and a convincing 4-2 victory over Southampton in league play on Tuesday.

INJURIES: Everton — OUT: Seamus Coleman (leg), Ramiro Funes Mori (knee), James McCarthy (hamstring), Yannick Bolasie (knee), Muhamed Besic (fitness) | Chelsea — OUT: None

[ MORE: Sunderland officially relegated to Championship ]

Middlesbrough vs. Manchester City — 9:05 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com

Following that 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby, Man City remain fourth in the league table, a single point back of Liverpool (with a game in hand). Given the mathematics involved, their margin for error is greater than any of the three sides fighting for the final top Champions League places. With that said, a loss away to 19th-place Boro would be horrendous, season-defining result — one that would take their destiny out of their own hands and see them rely on results elsewhere to finish top-four in Pep Guardiola‘s first season.

INJURIES: Boro — OUT: Victor Valdes (ribs); QUESTIONABLE: Grant Leadbitter (hamstring) | Man City — OUT: John Stones (knock), Ilkay Gundogan (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Sergio Aguero (back), David Silva (ankle), Gabriel Jesus (fitness)

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

It was confirmed on Friday that Sunday’s North London derby would be the very last meeting between Tottenham and Arsenal ever played at White Hart Lane, as the 118-year-old stadium will be demolished this summer as construction on Spurs’ brand new, 61,000-seat stadium continues. As fate would have it, not only can Spurs round out the White Hart Lane era with another famous derby when at the Lane, but Sunday also offers Mauricio Pochettino‘s side the chance to do something the club has failed to do in each of the last 22 seasons: clinch a finish above Arsenal in the league table.

Everything is in Spurs’ favor, too, as they’ve won eight straight league games for just the third time in club history (the first time in the PL era), by a combined score of 23-4. Following back-to-back 4-0 wins, over Watford and Bournemouth, their title hopes were kept alive by a brilliant, late strike from Christian Eriksen on Wednesday at Selhurst Park. At the same time, Arsenal were fortunate to top Leicester City courtesy of a comical own goal scored by Robert Huth. If any of those things — stadium nostalgia, form, or current standing in the league (Spurs sit second, 14 points clear of the Gunners — mattered, we’d hand Spurs the three points now. But, this is still Spurs we’re talking about, and why would we ever skip out on the North London derby?

INJURIES: Tottenham — OUT: Erik Lamela (hip), Harry Winks (ankle), Michel Vorm (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Danny Rose (knee)| Arsenal — OUT: Santi Cazorla (achilles), Shkodran Mustafi (thigh); QUESTIONABLE: Laurent Koscielny (knee)

Bundesliga wrap: Bayern Munich wins 27th German title in style

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Make it five in-a-row and a record 27 titles for German powers Bayern Munich.

[ MORE: Sunderland relegated ]

No other club has won more than Nurnberg’s nine titles, while Borussia Dortmund (8), Schalke (7), and Hamburg (6) are deep in the rear view mirror.


Wolfsburg 0-6 Bayern Munich

Bayern entered the day knowing a win would put the title out of reach for RB Leipzig, and David Alaba scored before the match was 20 minutes old to put the Bavarians on their way.

Robert Lewandowski added to the score line twice before half, passing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund) atop the goal scoring chart with his 27th and 28th of the season.

Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, and Joshua Kimmich contributed second half goals.

Here’s Lewandowski’s first.

RB Leipzig 0-0 Ingolstadt

Despite a 15-6 advantage in shot attempts and three times as many passes completed, RB Leipzig cast aside its slim chances for a Bundesliga title. Still, a shot at second in their first season is far from a shame.

Elsewhere
Bayer Leverkusen 1-4 Schalke – Friday
Borussia Dortmund 0-0 Koln
Werder Bremen 2-0 Hertha Berlin – Bartels, Kruse score
Mainz 1-2 Borussia Monchengladbach – Schulz scores winner
Darmstadt 3-0 Freiburg – 3rd-straight W for basement dwellers
Augsburg vs. Hamburg – 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Hoffenheim vs. Eintracht Frankfurt – 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Standings

 

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Bayern Munich 31 22 7 2 79 17 62 11-4-0 11-3-2 73
 RB Leipzig 31 19 6 6 56 31 25 12-2-2 7-4-4 63
 Borussia Dortmund 31 16 9 6 65 35 30 11-4-0 5-5-6 57
 1899 Hoffenheim 30 14 13 3 57 32 25 10-5-0 4-8-3 55
 Hertha BSC Berlin 31 14 4 13 38 37 1 12-1-2 2-3-11 46
 Werder Bremen 31 13 6 12 52 51 1 8-1-7 5-5-5 45
 SC Freiburg 31 13 5 13 38 55 -17 9-1-5 4-4-8 44
 1. FC Köln 31 10 12 9 43 37 6 7-6-2 3-6-7 42
 Mönchengladbach 31 12 6 13 41 45 -4 7-3-5 5-3-8 42
 FC Schalke 04 31 11 8 12 43 36 7 8-4-4 3-4-8 41
 Eintracht Frankfurt 30 11 8 11 32 34 -2 7-6-2 4-2-9 41
 Bayer Leverkusen 31 10 6 15 44 50 -6 5-5-6 5-1-9 36
 FSV Mainz 05 31 9 6 16 40 51 -11 6-4-6 3-2-10 33
 VfL Wolfsburg 31 9 6 16 30 49 -19 5-2-9 4-4-7 33
 Hamburger SV 30 9 6 15 30 55 -25 7-3-5 2-3-10 33
 FC Augsburg 30 8 8 14 29 49 -20 4-5-6 4-3-8 32
 FC Ingolstadt 04 31 8 5 18 33 54 -21 4-3-8 4-2-10 29
 Darmstadt 31 7 3 21 26 58 -32 6-3-7 1-0-14 24