Changes in Ancelotti’s debut: Casillas, di Maria, Arbeloa can’t crack Real Madrid XI

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Iker Casillas’s expected return to Real Madrid’s starting lineup was so highly anticipated, completely objective not-a-pro-Real-Madrid paper Marca printed a note of congratulations on Sunday morning.

“Welcome home, Iker,” the headline read, speaking with a familiarity that makes last names inappropriate. “Tonight the goalkeeper returns to the Real Madrid starting line-up …”

Hours later, Diego López — the man who became Real Madrid’s number one his January acquisition — was announced as Real Madrid’s starter for today’s match.

[MORE: Isco’s late goal gives Real Madrid win over Betis.]

“Ancelotti’s eagerness to re-establish the normal order seems to have given Iker the upper hand over Diego López – at least for the time being,” Marca wrote this morning.

Oops. More from Marca:

Now it is up to Iker to cement his grip on a first-team place, conscious that Ancelotti – who is delighted to have two-world class shotstoppers on his hands – will not be afraid to pull the trigger and switch things over if he deems it necessary.

The Italian has been at pains to avoid his decision leaking out, even claiming that he had yet to determine which goalkeeper would play. “It’s not an easy decision and it will come down to small details that are difficult to explain. They are both top professionals, are training well and did well in preseason”, he stated.

Ancelotti knows that the issue is a delicate one and wants to handle it with care. He is fully aware that last season, the controversy over the number 1 spot caused a rift in the dressing room and amongst the fans – one he is desperate to heal.

source:  After the match, March trotted out what’s sure to be the company line. Not that Casillas’s time at the Confederations Cup (and break afterward) aren’t legitimate factors, but when Gianluigi Buffon is starting the Supercoppa Italiana the same day Casillas is said to be behind in training, you have to think these excuses are only as important a you want them to be.

Again, Marca:

Ancelotti had already warned on the eve of the match that he was not certain who the first choice goalkeeper should be and he finally opted for Lopez who completed a full pre-season, while Casillas had only spent the past twenty days with the side.

Casillas versus López was only one of the curiosities from Ancelotti’s first match in charge. Some of these issues foreseeable, but now that an official game is in the book, we can start discussing some of the implications.

Free Cristiano! – Not that Cristiano Ronaldo was ever limited in what he could do under José Mourinho, but today he really seemed liberated to go wherever he thought the ball would end up. His average position made him the most left-leaning of Real’s attacking midfielders, but he was only slightly left of Isco. At full time, Ronaldo had attempted 11 shots, four finding their way on goal. 

Ángel Di María is the one to make way – There aren’t many who deny Di María’s influence, but whereas some think he’s merely a fine player, others see him as an absolute world-class talent. I tend to fall into the second group, because although the Argentine winger doesn’t put up the eye-popping goal totals, he does everything else. Unfortunately, that everything else-ness was on the bench at kickoff, with Isco starting in his place. He eventually came on the 69th minute for MesütÖzil.

Alvaro Arbeloa loses his spot, too – He’s been good enough to start at right back for Spain, but that never tempered criticism of Alvaro Arbeloa. It appears Carlo Ancelotti is the same camp as the detractors, because Daniel Carvajal, brought back to Spain this summer from Bayer Leverkusen, got the start.

source:  No sign of Kaká – A popular theory after Ancelotti’s move from Paris Saint-Germain held Kaká would get a fresh start under the man who guided at AC Milan. Perhaps that has happenned, but today, although Real Madrid spent only four minutes in the lead, Kaká was an unused sub. Özil, Isco, and Luka Modric got starts. Casemiro and Di María were called off the bench. But there was no time for Kaká.

Similar system, different tactics – You don’t want to read too much into the tactics, as they could have been tailored to Real Betis, but in a system that was similar to the one José Mourinho used before he left Real Madrid, it was interesting to see how much Los Blancos relied on their left side. Both goals were generated down that flank, as were most of the team’s chances, with all of the team’s attacking midfielders’ average positions left side of striker Karim Benzema. Perhaps that’s what a healthy Marcelo will do for you – implore you to go left. It was interesting, nonetheless.

But does/did that expose Ramos? –  Sergio Ramos was beaten badly on Real Betis’s only goal. Cedric, a 21-year-old Congolese attacker brought in from Numancia, put Ramos on his heals in a one-on-one before going right (and, right around him), setting up an easy finish for Jorge Molina. Ramos is a talented defender capable of handling those situations better.

It’s only one game, but for Real Madrid, it was a very interesting one.

La Liga: Sevilla win late to move even with Atletico Madrid in 3rd

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MADRID (AP) Wissam Ben Yedder scored three minutes after entering the game to give Sevilla a late 2-1 win over 10-man Celta Vigo in the Spanish league on Thursday.

The victory moved Sevilla even on points with third-place Atletico Madrid with four matches left. Third place guarantees an automatic spot in the Champions League next season, while the fourth-placed team has to go through a playoff.

Ben Yedder netted the winner from close range after a low cross by Samir Nasri in the 79th minute, beating a defender to the ball and hitting the top of the net with a right-footed shot.

“It was a complex game but the team was able to overcome the difficulties,” Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli said.

Joaquin Correa put the host ahead after halftime, and Iago Aspas equalized by converting a penalty kick just minutes later. Aspas did not celebrate the goal out of respect to fans of his former club.

Sevilla dominated from the start and was pressuring vigorously in search of the winner, especially after Celta went a man down when midfielder Pablo Hernandez was sent off with a second yellow card in the 56th with the game 1-1.

Sergio Escudero and Nasri each struck the crossbar a few minutes apart late in the second half, and Vicente Iborra also had hit the woodwork earlier in the game played under steady rain in Seville.

It was the third win in four matches for Sevilla after a streak of five games without a win.

Sevilla and Atletico are level on points, but the Madrid club is ahead on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Top PL Storylines: Bye-bye, St. Totteringham’s Day? So long, Sunderland?

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Ahead of Week 34 of the 2016-17 Premier League season, we’re most looking forward to keeping an eye on the following storylines…

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Cancel St. Totteringham’s Day?

8,018 days (otherwise known as 22.9 years) have passed since Tottenham Hotspur last finished above Arsenal in the Premier League. First of all, that’s a lot of days. Secondly, the time to reset that clock is nearly upon us, as Tottenham take a 14-point lead into Sunday’s North London derby (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) — perhaps the final one to be played at White Hart Lane. With Arsenal having only five games left to play after Sunday, a 17-point deficit would be mathematically impossible to overcome, and would guarantee Spurs’ first PL finish above Arsenal since the spring of 1995.

The fact that Spurs could end that embarrassing, heinous streak in a game against Arsenal, in perhaps their next-to-last game at White Hart Lane, and maybe even close to within a single point of Chelsea in the title race… it’s almost all too timely and too perfect to believe it could really happen… to Spurs.


Finish the job

With all due respect to Middlesbrough (home), West Bromwich Albion (away), Watford (home) and Sunderland (home), Sunday’s trip to Goodison Park, where they’ve lost on their last two visits (all competitions) and they’ll take on seventh-place Everton (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com), is far and away the toughest remaining fixture on Chelsea’s schedule as they chase a fifth PL-era title (fifth in all eras). Having booked their spot in the FA Cup final by beating Spurs last weekend, Antonio Conte is dreaming of — and a favorite to win — a double in his first season at Stamford.


Someone has to finish top-four

Ahead of the weekend, two points separate Liverpool (third), Manchester City (fourth) and Manchester United (fifth), with Arsenal another four back in sixth (but possessing a game in hand). Given all the points dropped by each of the aforementioned sides in recent weeks, it’s important to remember that someone has to finish third and fourth in the PL this season.

We’ve already discussed Arsenal’s titanic task, so here’s the challenges facing the other three this round: Liverpool, at Watford (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com); Man City, at Middlesbrough (Sunday, 9:05 a.m. ET, on  NBCSports.com); Manchester United, vs. Swansea City (7 a.m. ET, on CNBC and NBCSports.com).


So long, Sunderland?

For five seasons now, Sunderland have flirted with relegation from the PL; and every previous season, they’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat and managed to stay up. This season, though, under David Moyes, there appears to be no rabbit. With five games to go, safety is a whopping 12 points away, which means a loss to Bournemouth on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSports.com), coupled with a win or draw by 17th-place Hull City, would officially send Sunderland to the Championship next season. If the Black Cats somehow find their way out of this predicament, a northeastern knighthood awaits Mr. Moyes.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Johannsson expected to leave Bremen this summer — is MLS next?

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Aron Johannsson’s time at Werder Bremen is all but finished, as the 26-year-old American-born, Icelandic-raised striker is expected to leave the club this summer after 22 months with Die Werderaner.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

Having failed to make much of an impact during his second season in the Bundesliga, following a few promising days early in the fall of 2015, the German press stated on Thursday, in no uncertain terms, “Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club” — quotes from Kicker (translation courtesy of Google Translate):

In addition, Aron Johannsson is leaving the northern club. The US boy was not able to get through the hard competition in the storm, claimed more time, which can hardly be guaranteed in the next season. The fact that Baumann is already talking about finding a meaningful solution with the striker in the summer can be interpreted as follows: Johannsson will leave Werder.

Since various bits and pieces are lost in the above translation, allow us to offer a translation of the translation: the “hard competition in the storm” refers to the three or four strikers presently ahead of him in the pecking order. Johannsson fell down the depth chart due in large part to a hip injury which cost him the final seven months of last season.

Johannsson was recently quoted as saying, “It’s not my desire to leave, but at the end of the day it’s important that I play. I love football, but I need to play to be happy.”

[ MORE: John Brooks hip injury is worrying ahead of World Cup qualifiers ]

So, what’s next for Johannsson?

He can probably forget about a move to a top-division team in any of Europe’s premier leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). A move back to Holland, where he starred at AZ Alkmaar (39 goals in 81 games) before moving to Bremen, would make sense if his goal is to stay in Europe at all costs. Another strong season (just a half, even) could earn him another shot with a first-division side roughly the size of Bremen.

Then, there’s MLS, which Johannsson’s been linked with before, and has publicly expressed a desire to join one day. As a current U.S. national team player, a move to MLS would mean a trip through the league’s allocation order for Johannsson. As of this posting, the Houston Dynamo hold the no. 1 spot in the allocation order, with Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, Minnesota United and Orlando City SC rounding out the next five.

[ WATCH: If you haven’t Darlington Nagbe’s latest golazo ]

Any team in MLS could land Johannsson by acquiring the top spot in the allocation order, via trade, and agreeing (what would almost certainly be) a Designated Player contract with him.

At the age of 26, Johannsson will likely feel there is still something left for him to accomplish in Europe. A strong showing in this summer’s Gold Cup (he’s a perfect candidate for Bruce Arena’s “B-team”) could open plenty of eyes — and doors. Money talks, though, just as the opportunity to be the face of the franchise and score a boatload of goals in MLS might also do.