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.

New York Red Bulls ink goalkeeper Luis Robles to new deal

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The “Iron Man” will keep up his amazing journey with the New York Red Bulls, after signing a new deal with the club on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder on verge of joining Los Angeles FC ]

Goalkeeper Luis Robles has extended his contract with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, as the American continues to raise his consecutive starts streak, which stands at 157.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the club’s release.

Robles joined the Red Bulls back in 2012 after playing in Germany, and the shot-stopper hasn’t missed a start ever since.

Report: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson

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Minnesota United has had its shares of ups and down in its debut MLS season, but the Loons are on the verge making an exciting young signing.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder closing in on Los Angeles FC move ]

ESPN FC is reporting that Minnesota will sign Hearts winger Sam Nicholson from the Scottish Premier League on a deal that makes him a Loon until 2019.

The young attacker is expected to join the MLS side when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

Nicholson, 22, has played with the Edinburgh side since his youth days, and made his senior debut with the club in 2013. During his time at Hearts, Nicholson scored 16 goals in all competitions for the team.

Last season, Nicholson missed 16 matches due to a significant knee injury.

According to the report, Scottish sides Rangers and Aberdeen were also among those interested in acquiring Nicholson, while English Championship clubs Bristol City and Barnsley also reached out about the attacker.

Premier League vet Scott Parker calls quits on playing career

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Scott Parker has announced his retirement from soccer after a stellar 20-plus year career in England.

[ MORE: Chile bests Portugal on PKs to reach Confed Cup final ]

The 36-year-old spent almost the entirety of his career in the Premier League, and played with seven teams during his time on the pitch.

“I believe now is the right time to move on to the next chapter in my life and career,” Parker said in a statement.

“I feel incredibly honoured and proud to have enjoyed the career that I have and I’ve loved every moment of it.”

Parker began playing with Charlton after coming up through the team’s youth academy, before completing a move to Chelsea in 2004.

Throughout his career, Parker also spent time at Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham, before finishing up at Fulham this past season.

Three storylines when Mexico meets Germany in Confed Cup semis

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With a place in the final on the line tomorrow afternoon, it’s all or nothing for Mexico and Germany as they meet in the second semifinal at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup.

The two nations have had very similar paths in reaching the final four, after both accumulated seven points during the group stage and showed signs of improvement with every match.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s FIFA Confederations Cup action ]

Here are some of the key battles to watch on Thursday when Mexico and Germany square off for a place in the final.

How does Germany’s youth hold up vs. Mexico’s experience?

Even when Jurgen Low released his roster heading into the Confederations Cup, much was expected of the Germans. After a strong run of play during the group stage, Low’s men have lived up to the billing with an exciting young attack and an improving backline to match.

When Germany meets Mexico though, the defending World Cup champions will be taking on an El Tri side that has loads of international experience, and similar to that of Chile, the Europeans will surely receive all that they can handle.

At the tender age of 23, Julian Draxler captains the Germans and has been challenged with leading his nation throughout the tournament. The PSG attacker has been quality thus far, but he and his side will take on a whole different task on Thursday against a quick, feisty Mexican group.

Will Hirving Lozano be the difference in the attack?

Injuries and a key suspension will certain hinder Mexico in the semifinal round, but the bigger question is: how will Juan Carlos Osorio’s side cope with the losses?

El Tri know it will be without winger Andres Guardado due to yellow card accumulation, while striker Javier Hernandez is in question ahead of the Germany clash after reportedly training by himself on Monday.

Although Hernandez likely just needed rest after a busy season of matches in the Bundesliga, Mexico is still seeking a quality playmaker to replace Guardado on Thursday, one that they’re hoping with be Hirving Lozano.

The newly-signed PSV man has quickly become one of the top young faces in global soccer, and with three international goals for El Tri dating back to 2016, Lozano is the spark that Mexico needs.

El Tri must start fast

In all three of Mexico’s group stage matches Osorio’s side fell behind during the first half. While El Tri managed to come away unscathed to remain perfect in group play, it’s difficult to imagine that they will be able to pull off the same feat against a quality German side.

On the other hand, Mexico’s resilience has been impressive. In their opener against Portugal, El Tri pulled off a late winner against the reigning European champions, a result that likely set the tone for the team’s ensuing comebacks versus New Zealand and Russia, respectively.