Spain: Derbi loss was so much more for Real Madrid

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Last year, Barcelona dropped points six times on the way to their title: four draws; two losses. The year before, Real Madrid posted the same record: 100 points; only six blemishes. In this new era of championship perfectionism, you have to go all the way back to Pep Guardiola’s first year on Barcelona’s sidelines (2008-09) to find a Primera Division champion who lost more than two games. Even that season, most of Barça’s losses came after they’d sewn-up the title.

That’s part of the context for Real Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Atlético Madrid. Carrying one draw into Saturday’s game, los Merengues already had an early, unexpected stumble. Now, after losing to one of the league’s two perfect teams, Carlo Ancelotti’s team is five points back in a league with no meaningful margin of error.

It sounds insane to be talking about title implications seven matches into the season, particularly with a team that sits 5-1-1 after Saturday’s loss, but that’s the absurdity of Spanish soccer. When you have a Barcelona team that’s adding new tricks to their playbook and an Atletico club that’s forged a surprise challenger, the margin looks even thinner than before. Coming off a season where they never meaningfully threatened Barcelona’s title run, we’re left wondering how much longer El Real can stay relevant.

For a club where la decima (a 10th European title) is the priority, domestic bumps can always be put in perspective. But having suffered their second straight home loss to the Atleti — their first in league since 1999 — this team’s struggles have been cast in a unique perspective. They’d already lost last year’s Copa del Rey to their cross-town rivals, and now falling at hope to team that sold Falcão this summer, there’s reason to believe what was previously unthinkable: El Real may be numero dos in the capital.

Given the talent disparity between the two sides, that’s a difficult proposition to accept, but at some point, results are the only thing that matter. Atlético is undefeated this season. The only blemishes among their results are two Supercopa draws to Barcelona (they ended up losing the competition on away goals). Through Liga and Champions League, Atlético remains one of the three perfect teams among Europe’s top five leagues. Those credentials transcend Saturday’s surprise.

They don’t have the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco or Sergio Ramos, but Atlético do have Diego Costa – Spain’s co-leading scorer whose form has enticed the Spanish national team to try to lure him away from Brazil. His early goal was set up by Koke, the 21-year-old attacker who’s now tied for the league lead in assists (six). With Thiago (midfield), Diego Godin (defense), and Thibaut Courtois (goalkeeper) forming one of the stronger bases of a Spanish defense, a side short on superstars is also lacks any obvious weaknesses.

source: Getty Images
Their Saturday loss to rival Atlético leaves Real Madrid five points back in Spain, but in a league that’s been won by 100-point seasons in back-to-back years, the margin for error is small. (Photo: Getty Images.)

But what they lack in star power — that enviable quality that underlies the Barça-Real duopoly — Diego Simeone’s making up in cohesion, with a stalwart defense and efficient, mostly counter-atttacking style making the Atleti into surprise contenders. Though the Argentine has led Atletico to Europa League and Supercopa triumphs since his arrival just under two years ago, nobody predicted this surprise challenge to Spain’s Big Two. Thanks to an almost trite more than the sum of their parts scenario, that’s exactly what Atlético’s done.

If Real could capture a little of that spirit, there may be hope for them to re-enter the title race. And Atlético’s quality could actually help them keep up, if their the Colchoneros are able to take league points off of Barça. But after today’s loss, El Real sit seven matches into the season having already dropped seven points. And for now, after losing to their cross-town rivals at the Bernabéu, they’ve lost their claim to being the best team in Madrid.

Elsewhere in Spain:

  • Real Valladolid 2-2 Málaga: A 76th minute goal by Bartlomiej Pawlowski salvages a result for Bernd Schuster’s side, with the point enough to carry Valladolid out of the drop.
  • Valencia 1-0 Rayo Vallecano: Jonás’s 37th minute goal completes Los Che’s turnaround. After losing their first three, they’ve taken three on the trot. Rayo, on the other hand, sit last in La Liga, allowing three goals per game.
  • Almería 0-2 Barcelona: More business-like than spectacular, Barcelona remains perfect. Lionel Messi picked up a goal and an injury.
  • Real Sociedad 1-1 Sevilla: Another disappointing result for La Real, whose winless run hits seven games. A second half goal from Antoine Griezmann pulled back Jairo’s early opener.
  • Osasuna 0-1 Levante: An 88th minute goal from Jordi Xumetra leaves Osasuna empty-handed from a match where they would have expected a result.
  • Celta de Vigo 0-1 Elche: Rebounding from mid-week disappointment, the visitors took full points thanks to Javíer Xumetra’s second half winner, Celta having lost three of four.
  • Espanyol 0-2 Getafe: Adrián Colunga scores in the 72nd, 93rd minutes to hand Espanyol their second straight loss, Getafe moving into eighth after their third win in four.
  • Real Betis 1-0 Villarreal: The Yellow Submarine had a chance to leap Real Madrid and take over third place. Instead, a 36th minute goal from Nosa hands Marcelino’s team their first loss since returning to the Primera Division.

Chelsea: Conte expects warm reception for Mourinho; Terry is fit

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  A fan wears a Chelsea scarf with the image of the club's former manager, Jose Mourinho before the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Watford at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.

Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.

[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]

Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.

“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”

Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. The manager guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.

“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”

Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.

Canada vs. U.S. among top-notch CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 20:  Gershon Koffie #28 of the Vancouver Whitecaps brings the ball up field against Dax McCarty #11 of the New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place on June 20, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images)
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The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.

No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.

[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]

The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.

Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.

Full schedule
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)

The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).

Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).

Report: USWNT star Holiday has brain tumor removed

Costa Rica v United Staes: Final - 2014 CONCACAF Women's Championship
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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World Cup champion Lauren Holiday has had a brain tumor removed, one month after giving birth.

Holiday’s husband, Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans, announced that his pregnant wife was diagnosed with an operable tumor in September, and Lauren Holiday has publicly thanked fans for support while requesting prayers.

[ MORE: UCL Final in United States? ]

The Holidays welcomed their first child earlier this month, and Jrue left the Pelicans preseason to help his wife.

The BBC added this tidbit:

Unbelievably as a three-year-old, she had open-heart surgery to repair a defect and went on to become one of the world’s most respected football players.

Get well soon, Lauren.

WATCH: FC Dallas rocket goal sends Guatemalan rainwater flying off net

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Carlos Lizarazo #22 of FC Dallas looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Carlos Lizarazo’s ridiculous rocket shook rain off the net in an aesthetically pleasing CONCACAF Champions League goal on Thursday.

The Cruz Azul loanee struck a vicious shot for FC Dallas’ fifth goal, which boosted out of the No. 8 seed for the quarterfinals after a 5-2 win at Suchitepéquez in Guatemala.

[ MORE: PST talks with FCD’s Hedges, Zimmerman ]

Lizarazo, 25, had two goals in 10 appearances for FCD heading into the game, with both coming in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.