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.

Arsene Wenger “99.9 percent confident” new players will arrive at Arsenal

LILLE, FRANCE - JUNE 12:  Shkodran Mustafi of Germany runs with the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group C match between Germany and Ukraine at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 12, 2016 in Lille, France.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
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Arsene Wenger is just teasing Arsenal’s fans now.

[ MORE: UCL changes announced ]

With the Gunners reportedly closing in on a double swoop for Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez which will cost them almost $70 million, Wenger seems very confident that the deals will get done very shortly.

Speaking to the media on Friday ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Watford on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBC Sports) Wenger confirmed they are closing in on new signings ahead of the summer transfer window shutting on Aug. 31.

“We are working on the deals. We are not close enough to announce today that they will sign for us, and will we sign anybody before the end of the transfer window? I am 99 per cent confident.”

The deal for 24-year-old Mustafi has been rumbling on for some time now with Valencia driving a hard bargain for the German international defender. However, it is believed a fee of $46.2 million has been agreed for the center back and he is now on his way to London to complete a medical.

[ MORE: Europa League draw tough for United, Saints ]

As for Perez, the 27-year-old striker from Deportivo La Coruna has emerged as a late target for Arsenal after Everton had tracked him for most of the summer. It is believed Arsenal has met the $22.5 million release clause in his contract after Lucas scored 17 goals in La Liga for Deportivo last season. He will challenge Olivier Giroud for the central striking position at the Emirates Stadium but can also play in a variety of positions in the attacking unit.

If both of these deals go through as expected then Arsenal will have actually spent the third-most of any PL club this summer on new players, trailing only Manchester City and Manchester United in spending. They also signed Swiss international midfielder Granit Xhaka for $40 million earlier this summer.

Wenger joked about now being branded a big spending this summer and told one journalist “it is a shame you are not my friend. You will see I spend a lot of money,” when asked about the perception that Wenger doesn’t like to spend much in the transfer market.

Arsenal’s manager also revealed that Calum Chambers is likely to leave on loan before the window shuts with Mustafi taking his place, while the Gunners will have Gabriel back soon to join youngster Rob Holding, Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny as center back options. There is also club captain Per Mertesacker but he center back is out with a long-term knee injury and won’t be back until January.

UEFA Europa League group stage: Man United, Saints handed tough draws

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 19:  Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Manchester United celebrates scoring the opening goal with Paul Pogba during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford on August 19, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Premier League clubs Manchester United and Southampton were both handed tough, but exciting, draws in the 2016-17 group stage of the UEFA Europa League.

[ MORE: Europa League schedule

The draw, which took place in Monaco on Friday, saw Jose Mourinho’s United placed in Group A as they face Turkish giants Fenerbache, Dutch powerhouse Feyenoord and Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk with some big games coming up at Old Trafford.

United’s manager was happy with the tough tests for his squad: “It’s a big match to play in Istanbul as it is in Rotterdam – it’s good for us,” Mourinho said.

Saints, who have reached the group stage of the Europa League for the first-time in club history, face mouth-watering clashes against Inter Milan, while they also have tough games against Czech giants Sparta Prague and the champions of Israel Hapoel Beer-Sheva.

48 teams who had qualified for the Europa League group stage were split up into 12 groups of four teams with some other big ties cropping up as Group G looks particularly strong as it contains Ajax, Standard Liege, Celta Vigo and Panathinaikos.

The Europa League final will take place in Stockholm, Sweden at the Friends Arena on May 24, 2017.

Below is the draw in full, with the opening group games taking place on Thursday Sept. 15. There are six group games in total for each team and you can see the full schedule by clicking on the link above.


GROUP A
Manchester United
Fenerbache
Feyenoord
Zorya Luhansk

GROUP B
Olympiakos
APOEL FC
Young Boys
FC Astana

GROUP C
Anderlecht
St Etienne
FSV Mainz 05
Gabala

GROUP D
Zenit St Petersburg
AZ Alkmaar
Maccabi Tel-Aviv
Dundalk

GROUP E
Viktoria Plzen
AS Roma
Austria Wien
Astra Giurgiu

GROUP F
Athletic Bilbao
Genk
Rapid Wien
Sassuolo

GROUP G
Ajax
Standard Liege
Celta Vigo
Panathinaikos

GROUP H
Shakhtar Donetsk
SC Braga
Gent
Konyaspor

GROUP I
FC Schalke 04
FC Salzburg
Krasnodar
Nice

GROUP J
Fiorentina
PAOK FC
Slovan Liberec
Qarabag

GROUP K
Inter Milan
Sparta Prague
Southampton
Hapoel Beer-Sheva

GROUP L
Villarreal
Steaua Bucharest
FC Zurich
Osmanlispor

UEFA: Top four leagues guaranteed four teams in UCL from 2018

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27:  UEFA  Champions League trophy is seen ahead of the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The UEFA Champions League will see a big change for three seasons from the 2018-19 campaign.

[ MORE: UCL group stage draw ]

On Friday it was announced by UEFA that several changes, most notably the way teams qualify for the UCL, had been approved and will take place in the next competition cycle.

The biggest change and the one everyone is talking about is that from 2018 the teams who finish in the top four of the four highest ranked UEFA nations will automatically qualify for the UCL group stage.

[ MORE: Analyzing UCL draw for PL teams ]

That means no more UCL play-off for teams who finish fourth in the Premier League.

In a statement on their website, UEFA’s General Secretary ad interim Theodore Theodoridis revealed everyone is happy with the changes.

“The amendments made will continue to ensure qualification based on sporting merit, and the right of all associations and their clubs to compete in Europe’s elite club competitions. We are happy that European football remains united behind the concepts of solidarity, fair competition, fair distribution and good governance.”

Some argue that having 16 places guaranteed to teams from the top four nations in Europe — currently Spain, Germany, England and Italy — is a monopoly and limits the chances of smaller clubs from smaller nations from qualifying.

UEFA also revealed a new coefficient system with clubs no longer having a country share tacked on to their coefficient under most circumstances, plus historical success will be weighted in the coefficient rankings to take into account past UCL and Europa League titles won.

For example, Liverpool’s coefficient will likely increase despite not playing in Europe this season as instead of the coefficient being solely made up of how they and other English teams have performed in Europe over the past few years, now their five previous UCL titles will be weighted and their coefficient will improve due to past success.

Blatter says he will accept verdict as CAS appeal begins

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 25:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)
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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter arrived for his appeal hearing against a six-year ban from football on Thursday, pledging to accept the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport

“I do hope it will be positive for me,” Blatter, sporting a light gray beard, told reporters at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) ahead of a hearing expected to last several hours.

The court’s verdict is expected within several weeks, and could be challenged in a further appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court.

The 80-year-old Blatter denies wrongdoing in authorizing a $2 million payment to former FIFA vice president Michel Platini in 2011. They claimed it was for backdated and uncontracted salary for work Platini did in advising Blatter from 1999 to 2002.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The so-called “disloyal payment” led Blatter to be put under investigation for criminal mismanagement by Swiss federal prosecutors last September. That investigation is ongoing.

FIFA’s ethics committee judged the $2 million deal was a conflict of interest and initially banned Blatter and Platini for eight years last December. FIFA’s appeal committee cut both bans to six years.

Platini’s appeal to CAS was already judged in May, when Blatter appeared in person as a witness. Platini promised a further appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal after his ban was only cut from six to four years.

Platini arrived at the hearing around midday local time to be a witness. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter’s comments Thursday suggest he would not pursue a federal case. Federal judges can intervene only if legal process is abused.

“We are football players, we learned to win but also we learned to lose and it will not be the end of the world,” Blatter said outside CAS.

The three-member panel for Blatter’s case is expected to respect the verdict of a separate panel which judged Platini.

A failure to overturn the ban for Blatter would likely end his hope to one day be named FIFA honorary president by its 211 member federations.

[ MORE: Ranking Champions League groups ]

The case already ended Platini’s chance to replace Blatter as FIFA president, and also forced him out of European governing body UEFA.

On Sept. 14, UEFA members will elect a successor to replace Platini who had a mandate through March 2019. By imposing a four-year ban, the CAS panel ensured UEFA had to replace Platini, rather than wait for him to return.

The “disloyal payment” emerged last year when Platini was strongly favored to win the election to replace Blatter, who had announced his departure plans after 17 years as president amid pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption implicating senior FIFA officials.

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Both men were questioned at FIFA headquarters last September by Swiss investigators who were waiting for them outside an executive committee meeting.

During the turmoil in world football, Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, Gianni Infantino, submitted an election candidacy on the entry deadline day and won the vote in February.

Arriving at the hearing with his Zurich-based lawyer Lorenz Erni, Blatter said he hoped the CAS panel “will understand that the payment made to Platini was really a debt that we had against him.”

“This is a principle, if you have debts you pay them,” Blatter said.