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 Preview: Arsenal vs. Stoke City

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  Stephen Ireland of Stoke City shoots a volley during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Southampton at the Emirates Stadium on February 2, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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  • Arsenal has won last 14 matches against Stoke
  • Gunners are currently unbeaten in last 13 PL fixtures
  • Stoke has gone unbeaten in eight of last nine matches

Arsenal looks to remain hot on Saturday as the Gunners host Stoke City (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners remain in contention at the summit of the Premier League as Arsene Wenger‘s side sits second behind league leaders Chelsea on 31 points. In addition to Arsenal’s recent success in the PL, the Gunners have progressed to the final 16 in the UEFA Champions League as well, making 2016/17 a potentially strong year for the London side.

Alexis Sanchez continues to lead the way for the Gunners attack, with the Chilean international notching 11 goals so far this season. In his last 25 PL matches for the club, Sanchez has either scored or assisted on as many goals for the Gunners.

[ MORE: Everton heads to Vicarage Road to face Watford ]

Stoke remains without several top pieces in its lineup, including U.S. Men’s National Team defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron and Ryan Shawcross, however, Bruno Martins Indi and Marko Arnautovic are expected to play for the Potters.

The Emirates has not been friendly to Stoke though in recent years, with the Potters only scoring three goals in their last eight visits while conceding on 19 occasions.

What they’re saying

Arsene Wenger on Arsenal’s progression throughout the season: “We have a good team dynamic, we have a very strong team spirit and we have more maturity, definitely. Unfortunately, the teams around us have more as well. You can assess the Premier League as very open and very interesting… December is a very important month and for us even more because we have some big games. Stoke is another challenge for us [to show] that we can reset, refocus and continue our development and take the points.”

Mark Hughes on Stoke’s solid play against PL’s top sides“In the past as a club we’ve struggled to get results at places like Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge but we’ve been able to do that in recent times. This is the only one left standing so it would be great to get it out of the way. Our recent form is good and we’re in good heart so confidence is high, that is huge in football, so we’ll be able to benefit from that. It’s up to us to restrict them to minimal chances and make sure we’re creating chances when going the other way.”

Prediction

The Gunners can make it 14 straight matches unbeaten on Saturday, and while Stoke has done well to start the season, it’s highly likely that Arsenal will continue its winning ways. Alexis Sanchez is a Golden Boot contender in England, while the backline has improved every match for the Gunners. While the club has received its deserved criticisms in the past for faltering at critical junctures of the season, 2016/17 could be the year that Arsene Wenger and co. break through in the PL. Arsenal 3-1 Stoke

Premier League Preview: Watford vs. Everton

WATFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 09:  Jose Holebas (1st R) of Watford scores his team's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on April 9, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
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  • Everton are unbeaten in 11 straight matches vs. Watford (all comps)
  • Troy Deeney is one goal shy of 100 in Hornets kit
  • Toffees have won just one of last nine in PL

Watford hosts Everton on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live) from Vicarage Road as the two clubs look to keep pace in the running with the Premier League’s top six.

The Hornets have lost three of four in the PL and currently sit 11th in the table on 18 points. In that span, Watford has been outscored 11-4, including the team’s brutal 6-1 defeat at Liverpool in early November.

Etienne Capoue leads the way for Watford in the goals department, with five on the season, while Troy Deeney has three of his own and sits just one away from notching his 100th for the club. Defending his been a bit of an issue though for the Hornets — who have conceded 24 in 14 matches — with only four teams allowing more goals this season.

[ MORE: Swansea remain committed to Bob Bradley despite struggles ]

Everton could potentially have to deal without Yannick Bolasie for the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury, while Seamus Coleman is expected to play after sustaining a head injury a week ago.

The Toffees enter Saturday with just one win out of their last nine, and while one point separates Ronald Koeman‘s side from sixth place Manchester United, a victory is very much needed for the Merseyside club. While Romelu Lukaku continues to carry the load up front for Everton with seven goals thus far, the Toffees rank mid table in terms of goals scored this season (17).

What they’re saying

Walter Mazzarri on importance of upcoming fixtures for Watford: “It’s very important. The next six games will probably decide our future and decide if we are going to be in the Premier League. It will decide in a certain way, if we are going to be up or playing in a different way and struggling more. These games will decide this. We have been unlucky on injuries and have been in a bit of an emergency for a couple of months.”

Ronald Koeman on Everton striker Romelu Lukaku’s form: “You can have a good run of scoring goals and then have a bit of time where you don’t really get big chances to score. The players around him need to create more and he can improve in his movements – it’s a team question to create more chances. But if he gets the chances, we always know he will score goals.”

Prediction

Both sides enter Saturday’s encounter in desperate need of a victory, but Everton’s last time out against Manchester United was a bit more encouraging. It won’t be an easy task to take points at Vicarage, however, I expect the Toffees to come away with something against the struggling Hornets. Watford 2-2 Everton

Strootman has 2-match ban for Rome derby melee lifted

ROME, ITALY - DECEMBER 04:  Kevin Strootman of AS Roma celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AS Roma at Stadio Olimpico on December 4, 2016 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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ROME (AP) Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman has had a two-match ban lifted on appeal, clearing him to play key matches against AC Milan and Juventus.

Strootman had been banned for instigating a melee after scoring during Sunday’s Rome derby.

After the goal and an extended celebration, words appeared to be exchanged as Roma’s players walked back onto the field alongside Lazio’s bench.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Final preview ]

Strootman appeared to toss water from a bottle at Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi, who reacted by tugging the neck of Strootman’s shirt as the Netherlands midfielder walked away.

That prompted both benches to get involved.

Cataldi, who had been on the bench, was given a red card while Strootman was shown a yellow.

The two-match ban was decided on Monday, with league officials deciding that Strootman simulated falling to the ground after Cataldi grabbed his shirt.

However, the football federation’s appeals court determined that the simulation could not be proven.

Besides a one-match ban for the red card, Cataldi’s full punishment has not been announced yet.

Roma won the derby 2-0.

The second-place Giallorossi host Milan on Monday and then visit Serie A leader Juventus.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

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