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.

Off-kilter Kane saves sloppy Spurs at Palace

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  • Tottenham goes fourth
  • Spurs with 76 percent possession
  • Kane scores late

Harry Kane made amends for an atypical day of sloppy finishing with an 89th minute winner as Tottenham Hotspur persisted to beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Selhurst Park on Sunday.

The win gives Spurs 55 points, good for fourth in the Premier League before Chelsea faces Manchester United.

Palace remains 17th, behind Saints but ahead of Swans on goal differential. The Eagles are sorely missing Wilfried Zaha.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Ben Davies was fouled in a bid to meet a back post free kick in the eighth minute, but no penalty was given and Palace cleared the corner as Spurs provided the first true scoring chance of the match.

Palace keeper Wayne Hennessey was at his left post for a fine save on Harry Kane in the 10th, as Patrick Van Aanholt lost the English superstar.

At the other end, Luka Milivojevic‘s free kick was headed into the arms of Hugo Lloris by James Tomkins. Lloris would deprive Christian Benteke of a finishing bid in the 16th minute, too.

A penalty was coming for Kane before the referee noticed the linesman’s raised flag and saved Timothy Fosu-Mensah from conceded the opportunity.

Palace made it to the locker room at 0-0, with Townsend hitting a low ball to Lloris before the break.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The second half began, and Spurs worked some chances to score that were lacking the appropriate finish. Both Kane and Christian Eriksen shanked attempts in the first five minutes.

A pair of gorgeous flicks from Serge Aurier and Eriksen met Kane near the back post, but the striker atypically missed what should’ve been an easy opener.

Palace thought Alexander Sorloth might’ve earned a penalty from Davinson Sanchez, but Spurs escaped punishment in the 63rd minute.

Hennessey continued to play his role, stopping from Aurier before extending fully to palm away Davies’ offering in the 73rd.

Dele Alli dove in a bid to win a penalty soon after the Davies denial, but had no success.

Kane found a moment of brilliance in the 83rd minute, but Benteke of all players slid to block the shot and Hennessey collected the ball.

Davies should’ve had an assist moments later, but Aurier tripped on the ball.

Kane dragged an 86th minute shot inches wide of the goal, and it just seemed unlikely to be Spurs day despite dominance on the ball.

Of course, that meant an off-balance Hennessey couldn’t get a hold of Kane’s header off an Eriksen free kick with 90 seconds remaining before stoppage time.

Watch Live: Manchester United vs. Chelsea

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It’s a big one, you know: Manchester United hosts Chelsea in a battle for table positioning on Sunday at Old Trafford (Watch live at 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Scrutinized summer signings Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata start at center forward for their respective sides.

Morata scored the lone goal when Chelsea beat United 1-0 in November.

Jose Mourinho has opted for Scott McTominay over Michael Carrick and Juan Mata in the midfield, while Anthony Martial gets the call over Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard.

Chelsea will have Pedro and Olivier Giroud on the bench.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Lindelof, Smalling, Young, McTominay, Matic, Pogba, Alexis, Lukaku, Martial. Subs: Pereira, Bailly, Shaw, Carrick, Mata, Lingard, Rashford.

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Drinkwater, Kante, Alonso; Willian, Morata, Hazard. Subs: Caballero, Cahill, Zappacosta, Emerson, Fabregas, Pedro, Giroud.

Aubameyang says off-field criticism “goes over my head”

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The Daily Mirror posted a profile on Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang late Saturday, speaking with the Gabonese striker as well as a number of people in his life.

[ MORE: PL Saturday roundup ]

Most of the talk dealt with his obsession with soccer, which started as an admirer of his internationally-capped father, but the quotes getting attention come from Aubameyang and deal with his comfort as a flashy personality.

So for those wondering whether the 27-year-old is going to tame his off-field activities now that he’s moved to London, well, it’s unlikely.

Aubameyang has a bit of David Beckham in him, cognizant of his background and relishing his place in life.

“The clothes, the cars and all that are a bonus. I enjoy living this way. I like who I am and it doesn’t matter if other people can’t ­accept that – it goes over my head.

“As they say ‘you only live once’. It’s important to know where you come from and where your roots are – the rest is a big bonus.”

Any number of players, from Andy Carroll to Cristiano Ronaldo, have appreciated the very same things.

It’s not a big deal.

As long as on-field performances accompany them, any criticism is driven by envy or a need to attract a similar form of attention as the player himself.

Watch Live: Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur

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Crystal Palace could find itself back in the relegation zone with a heavy home defeat Saturday, and Tottenham Hotspur is certainly capable of providing such misery (Watch live at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Wan-Bissaka, Fosu-Mensah, Tomkins, Van Aanholt, Milivojevic, Riedewald, McArthur, Townsend, Sorloth, Benteke. Subs: Henry, Souare, Delaney, Rakip, Lokilo, Kirby, Lee.

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris (C), Aurier, Sanchez, Dier, Davies, Wanyama, Dembele, Lamela, Eriksen, Dele, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Foyth, Trippier, Rose, Sissoko, Lucas, Son.