Neymar da Silva, Francesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets

Spain: Barcelona’s thin margin for error; Gareth Bale’s perfect Cristiano Ronaldo impression

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What looked like a weekend that would be dominated by Gareth Bale’s hat trick became a time to consider a newly vulnerable Barcelona, the injury-laden holders pulled even on points at the top of the league after their surprise loss at Athletic Bilbao. Thanks to Iker Muniain’s 70th minute winner, Ernesto Valderde’s team posted their first win over Barcelona since 2006, their three Sunday points allowing them to vault Villarreal and claim fourth place in La Liga.

Despite having only dropped points twice this season (a status that would normally garner them some room at the top), the Blaugrana find themselves in the thick of a title race, their 40 points in 15 games leaving no room between themselves and the league’s next best team. But whereas any other season that team would be Real Madrid, it’s the Merengues’ cross town rivals who’ve managed to keep pace, with Atlético Madrid and Barcelona now sporting matching 13-1-1 records.

Atleti took care of business on Saturday, second half goals from Koke and Diego Costa (his 18th of the year) giving the Rojiblancos a 2-0 win at Elche, further reinforcing the point: Diego Simeone’s team has the staying power to keep up with Barcelona and Real Madrid (only three back after Saturday’s win over Valladolid). Whereas Barcelona suffered their second consecutive loss on Sunday, Atlético has only lost once in 2013-14. Given the standoff they played Barcelona to in the Spanish Supercopa, it’s unclear the teams’ difference in quality matches their gap in reputations. Underdogs by name, Atlético are legitimate title threats on the field.

And with Barcelona going through a particularly injury-hit spell, this may be Atlético’s chance to put some room between them and the reigning champions ahead of the clubs’ meeting on Jan. 12. While the Barcelona team that visits the Vicente Calderon will be more formidable than the one that lost at San Mamés, the absences of Lionel Messi, Víctor Valdés, Dani Alves, and Carles Puyol proved too much to overcome in Bilbão. For the second straight match, Barcelona only put two shots on target, Sunday’s loss building on mid-week disappointment in Holland to give the team a two-game losing streak. With league matches against Villarreal (fifth), Getafe (seventh), and Elche (13th) ahead of their visit to Madrid, Barcelona will be hard-pressed to take full points, something this week’s results make it unclear they’re be able to do.

Losing at quality teams like Ajax and Athletic isn’t reason enough to hit panic buttons, but in a Spanish league were the margin for error is miniscule, the absences of Messi, Valdes, and Alves have especially hurt. Today, Barcelona lost their first league match since March, and because none of the league’s other top three are dropping enough points, their slip cost them sole possession of first. If they can’t get their stars back soon (or if they hit another spell of injuries later this year), they may not have the same wiggle room to defend their title.

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Gareth Bale’s seventh, eighth, and ninth goals of the Spanish season helped Real Madrid to a 4-0 victory over Real Valladolid on Saturday. (Photo: AP Photo.)

Bale Ronaldo-esque in star’s absence

So much for that slow beginning to his Real Madrid career, right? Through nine starts (11 all-competition appearances), the Merengues latest star has nine goals and six assists, the latter number La Liga’s best since Oct. 1. With three goals on Saturday, the former Spurs winger almost single-handedly pushed El Real past visiting Valladolid, a first half goal from Karim Benzema all the kept this weekend’s win from being all about Bale. Real Madrid went on to win 4-0, moving within three points of first.

Now fully integrated into his new team, it’s not hard to imagine Bale out-performing the prodigious numbers that earned him a transfer to the Santiago Bernabeu. In all competitions last year, Bale scored 26 goals in 44 games, and while he isn’t quite the same center-of-everything presence in Madrid that he was at White Hate Lane, the talent around him means his team’s going to score far more goals. At his current rate, Bale would best last season’s total by four, should he play 44 games. Given Real Madrid’s likely success in Champions League and Copa del Rey, he’ll probably play more. If he stays healthy, Bale will have his most productive season yet.

When we talked about Ballon d’Or cases mid-week, we didn’t mention Bale, mostly because it’s so easy to see he isn’t quite Cristiano Ronaldo. But at this point, there isn’t much that separates the 24-year-old from Franck Ribéry. Whatever gap does persist is likely to be closed by the end of this season.

In the interim, Real’s new galatico is doing a fine job filling in for the team’s sidelined star.

[MORE: Gareth Bale hat trick leads Real Madrid to big win (video)]

Elsewhere

  • Getafe 1, Levante 0 – Pedro León’s 79th minute winner moves Luis Garcia’s team seventh, ending their three-match winless run.
  • Villarreal 1, Málaga 1 – A 94th minute corner put home by Weligton cost the hosts full points and their fourth place standing, the Yellow Submarine passed on Sunday by Athletic.
  • Celta de Vigo 3, Almería 1 – Suso’s ninth minute opener saw the hosts respond with three goals before the hour mark, Celta’s fourth win of the season putting space between Luis Enrique’s team and the drop.
  • Espanyol 1, Real Sociedad 2 – Christian Stuani’s own goal in the 88th minute sends Javier Aguirre’s team to their third loss in four games. La Real, on the other hand, have overcome a slow start to reach sixth place after their third win in four.
  • Real Betis 2, Rayo Vallecano 2 – Betis stay bottom of the table thanks to Alberto Bueno, whose second half, stoppage time goal completed his brace and cost the home side two points.
  • Granada 1, Sevilla 2 – Kevin Gameiro’s 87th minute winner gives Sevilla their third win in a row, vaulting Unai Emery’s team eighth in the league.
  • Valencia 3, Osasuna 0 – Three goals in the span of eight minutes gave Jonas the hat trick, the Brazilian taking advantage of Francisco Puñal’s early red card to push Los Che into the table’s top half.

Standings

1. Barcelona, 40 pts. (15 games)
2. Atlético Madrid, 40 pts.
3. Real Madrid, 37 pts.
4. Athletic Club, 29 pts.
5. Villarreal, 28 pts.
6. Real Sociedad, 23 pts.
7. Getafe, 23 pts.
8. Sevilla 22 pts.
9. Valencia, 20 pts.
10. Espanyol, 18 pts.
11. Elche, 17 pts.
12. Granada, 17 pts.
13. Levante, 17 pts.
14. Celta de Vigo, 15 pts.
15. Málaga, 14 pts.
16. Osasuna, 13 pts.
17. Rayo Vallecano, 13 pts.
18. Real Valladolid, 13 pts.
19. Almería, 12 pts.
20. Real Betis, 10 pts.

Premier League chairman: Leicester City made mugs of all of us

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester reacts to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore has been around football for a long time, but even he can’t explain Leicester City’s miraculous title run.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Leicester coverage ]

With the Foxes now officially champions of England, Scudamore hailed the achievement as “the biggest sporting story ever.”

Speaking to BBC Sport, the Premier League’s top exec said Leicester’s run has silenced all the bookmakers and critics who said it could never happen, but that he wouldn’t want it any other way.

It’s probably the biggest sporting story ever and the biggest sporting achievement ever.

Nobody saw it coming and even when it was halfway through the season nobody said it could be sustained.

We don’t know what the future holds because we’ve all become completely hopeless at predicting anything, including the bookmakers and everybody else – because this one nobody saw coming.

It’s made mugs of all of us and that is just the most fantastic feeling.

If the bookmakers had it as a 5,000-1 event, you would imagine you should achieve these type of things once every 5,000 years. It gives us 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years of being able to say: ‘Leicester 2016. Just remember Leicester 2016.’

Pegged as pre-season favorites for relegation, Leicester defied the odds (5,000-1 odds) and claimed the most unlikely of championships. A top executive with the Premier League since 1999, even Scudamore had to admit he had a bit of egg on his face.

[ VOTE: What is the top moment from Leicester’s fairytale run? ]

Scudamore may not have believed in the Foxes, but few outside the city really did. One thing the chairman did have right though, is that we will all remember ‘Leicester 2016.’

Simeone on Atleti’s achievement: We showed the work of three years

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 02:  Head coach Diego Pablo Simeone of Atletico de Madrid gives instructions during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Betis Balompie at Vicente Calderon Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Atletico Madrid are headed to their second Champions League final in three seasons.

Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to lead Atleti past Bayern Munich in the semis as they must now await their opponent in the final, either Manchester City or Real Madrid.

[ MORE: UCL semifinal preview ]

Atleti lost the 2014 final to Real Madrid, but they currently look the strongest side in Europe with a leader in Diego Simeone who has risen up the ranks of the game’s elite managers.

Speaking after Tuesday’s match, Simeone said the performance his side put in against Bayern Munich was thanks to the work they have put in over the past few seasons.

Very emotional. It was a very good first half by Bayern, they’re a great team. The missed penalty gave us life.

We had to change a bit from the first leg in terms of how we played and we showed our strengths as a team. The penalty miss by Torres hurt us but in the end it was like a movie, thrilling, with five minutes extra time.

I’m proud of what has happened to this club. We are beating the best teams in the world. Over the course of 180 minutes we showed the work of three years.

I hope that destiny will eventually help us in the final. It doesn’t matter who we play.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich entered the Champions League as favorites to lift the trophy in Milan, but both of those sides failed to get past Simeone’s Atletico.

[ REPORTS: Man City to trigger $60 million Aymeric Laporte release clause ]

Simeone’s name has been linked with the Premier League and other top clubs in Europe, but is there a reason for him to leave Madrid? Atleti’s two legs against Bayern truly did show the work of three years, as the manager has stuck to his guns and built the team around his values as a manager. They may not have been mentioned in the elite tier of clubs in the past, but Simeone has proven they should be now.

Has Pep Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern Munich been a failure?

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 17:  Head coach Pep Guardiola of Bayern looks on during the a press conference at National Stadium in day 1 of the FC Bayern Audi China Summer Pre-Season Tour on July 17, 2015 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Pep Guardiola could have seven trophies from his three seasons at Bayern Munich when he leaves the club this summer.

Guardiola has won two Bundesliga titles, a German Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and FIFA Club World Cup since taking over the Bavarian club in 2013. Bayern are in line to win another Bundesliga title in a few weeks time, and face Borussia Dortmund in another German Cup final.

However, when you take a look at all those honors, one is missing: The UEFA Champions League.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

After being bounced by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semifinal on Tuesday, Guardiola will leave Bayern without the one trophy he wanted most.

In three seasons under Pep, Bayern has been eliminated in the UCL semifinal each year. Each year it was to Spanish opposition, losing to Real Madrid (2014), Barcelona (2015), and Atleti (2016).

While reaching the Champions League semifinal is a great achievement for most clubs, it is a step back for Bayern. In 2013, just weeks before Guardiola was appointed boss, Bayern won the Champions League. They also reached the final in 2010 and 2012 before that.

[ MORE: Game-by-game look at Leicester City’s title-winning season ]

Pep won the Champions League twice in four seasons in charge at Barcelona, and he was expected to do the same in Germany. After three UCL finals appearances in four seasons before Guardiola and none under the Spaniard, it’s hard to argue his time with Bayern has been a success.

Yes, Guardiola will likely leave Munich with three Bundesliga titles, a mark of domestic dominance during his time at the Allianz Arena. However, Bayern had already won the league 22 times before Pep, as he was not brought there for Bundesliga success.

Simply put, Guardiola came to a Bayern team that was the best in Europe, and he will leave a Bayern team that is just the best in Germany.

Bayern Munich 2-1 (2-2, agg.) Atletico Madrid: Griezmann’s away goal sends Atleti to Milan

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 13:  Antoine Griezmann (R) of Atletico de Madrid celebrates their victory with teammate Koke (L) during the UEFA Champions League quarter final, second leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Vincente Calderon on April 13, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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  • Alonso, Lewandowski score for Bayern
  • Thomas Muller has penalty stopped
  • Griezmann’s goal sends Atleti through 

Despite losing the match and finishing tied on aggregate, Atletico Madrid are headed to their second Champions League final in three years as Diego Simeone’s men advance past Bayern Munich on away goals. It is the third straight season in which Bayern has been eliminated from in the semifinal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

Bayern expectedly dominated possession from the start of the match, continuously pushing into Atleti territory. The Atletico back-line was stretched out of shape multiple times in the first half, a rare sight from Europe’s best defense, especially surprising with Diego Godin back in the starting lineup.

After a few stops from Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Bayern finally found a goal just after the half-hour mark. With a free kick from 20 yards out, Xabi Alonso stepped up and fired a low shot on goal. Alonso’s shot deflected off Jose Jimenez, skipping through the young center-back’s legs and leaving Oblak helpless, ending Atleti’s impressive run of defensive dominance.

Jose Jimenez nearly cost Atletico again just minutes later when he was called for a foul on Javi Martinez in the box, giving a penalty to Bayern. Thomas Muller tried to give his side their first lead of the semifinal, but Oblak guessed correctly and made a huge stop to keep the tie level on aggregate.

As the match headed towards halftime, managers Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone began to have some words on the touchline. Simeone had to be held back from Bayern’s Franck Ribery, although tempers cooled down and no discipline from the referee was necessary.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule ]

Bayern continued to control play after the break, but it was the visitors who found the second half’s first goal. Against all the run of play, Fernando Torres caught Bayern on the counter, sending Antoine Griezmann in on goal all alone. Griezmann buried his shot past Manuel Neuer to put Atleti back ahead on aggregate 2-1. It was Griezmann’s seventh Champions League goal and 31st in all competitions this season.

With Griezmann’s away goal, Bayern needed to score two more without conceding to reach the final. Despite the uphill battle, Pep’s men pushed on and got a response in the 74th minute. A high cross from David Alaba was headed back across the box from Arturo Vidal, where Robert Lewandowski was waiting for an easy tap home. Up 2-1 on the night but tied 2-2 on aggregate, Bayern had 20 minutes to find that decisive goal.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

While Bayern pressed, Atletico had a golden opportunity to finish the match when Fernando Torres earned the game’s second penalty. Torres was taken down from behind by Javi Martinez, and although replays showed the contact was initiated just outside the box, a penalty was given. Torres went to finish what he started, but once again the keeper prevailed as Manuel Neuer made a strong save to deny the Spaniard.

Guardiola urged his side on through the final minutes, but Atletico withstood the pressure to advance on away goals. Diego Simeone’s side has now eliminated Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, as Atleti can no longer be considered underdogs.