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.

Podolski displeased with Mourinho’s treatment of Schweinsteiger

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Bastian Schweinsteiger of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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The Jose Mourinho-Bastian Schweinsteiger relationship is a very puzzling situation for Manchester United, and most outsiders appear to be taking the German’s side.

[ MORE: De Bruyne sidelined a month with hamstring injury ]

Former teammate Lukas Podolski has chimed in on the matter, pointing out Schweinsteiger’s decorated career for both club and country.

[ MORE: Lewis Baker stuns Twente with long-distance golazo ]

Since the arrival of Mourinho this summer, the Portuguese manager has made it clear that the 32-year-old isn’t his plans, including dropping Schweinsteiger to United’s reserves.

Podolski recently spoke to Bild about the situation:

“When you look at the career Bastian has had, I can only say that what is happening there is simply not right for a player of his stature,” Podolski said.

“I do not know what Mourinho has discussed with Bastian. But is clear that it is not okay to drop someone like Basti to the reserves.

“A coach should always keep his door open to all players, and especially to players like Schweini.”

While Schweinsteiger’s contract doesn’t run out until 2018, the volatile relationship between the Red Devils midfielder and Mourinho certainly looks to be one that won’t last much longer.

Video: Lewis Baker nets stunning long-distance golazo

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The game was essentially over for Vitesse Arnhem, but Lewis Baker gave his fans something to cheer about in second-half stoppage time.

[ MORE: West Ham suffers embarrassing home defeat vs. Southampton ]

The on-loan Chelsea midfielder hit a lovely blast from over 30 yards out during Vitesse’s 2-1 loss against FC Twente on Sunday, as the ball dipped into the top corner and past goalkeeper Nick Marsman (Click on the video above).

Baker, 21, now has three finishes on the season in the Dutch Eredivisie after netting five during the 2015/16 campaign.

Perhaps this is a good sign of things to come for Chelsea fans.

“It can’t get any worse” West Ham captain Mark Noble slams team for struggles

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 10:  Mark Noble of West Ham United looks thoughtful after the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on May 10, 2016 in London, England. West Ham United are playing their last ever home match at the Boleyn Ground after their 112 year stay at the stadium. The Hammers will move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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West Ham is in a massive slump, and with questions being asked around the whole squad, captain Mark Noble has said things are at an all-time low.

“If I’m honest, it could have been six in the end had Adrian not pulled off some good saves. On the bright side I don’t think it can get any worse.” Noble claimed after the 3-0 home loss to Southampton. The London club has the worst defensive record in the Premier League, having given up 16 goals in six matches this season, with the most recent games especially bad.

[ RECAP: Charlie Austin, Dusan Tadic down West Ham 3-0 ]

“We’ve conceded 11 in three games and it’s laughable and not good enough. We know that,” Noble conceded. “To be honest I think we could have kept playing until tonight and I don’t think we would have scored. It doesn’t seem to be going in for us at the minute.”

But he also preached togetherness if the team is to lift itself out of the relegation zone.

“We’ve got to stick together and not blame each other,” Noble said. “We have to do this as a team, because it’s not good enough.  You’ve got to work hard for each other. You can’t start talking in your little circles and blaming each other because we’ve got to look at ourselves. Luckily enough it’s early in the season and we’ve got a chance to turn it around.”

Bundesliga roundup: Schalke misery continues, Leipzig gets road point at Koln

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24:  Markus Weinzierl the head coach of FC Augsburg speaks during the FC Augsburg Press Conference ahead of their UEFA Europa League round of 32, second leg match against Liverpool at Anfield on February 24, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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Schalke has spent 24 seasons in the German top flight, and made regular appearances near the top of the Bundesliga table in the past eight years.

This season is not looking true to that form. Schalke has yet to pick up a single point through five matches, with another loss today on the road at 9th-placed Hoffenheim 2-1. The visitors went ahead just four minutes in thanks to Eric Choupo-Moting, but they coughed up the lead, making way to goals from Lukas Rupp and former Leicester City midfielder Andrej Kramaric.

Schalke manager Markus Weinzierl only took charge this summer, and that has him already under pressure as the only team without a point in the German top flight, the club’s worst ever start to a Bundesliga season. Hoffenheim, meanwhile, picked up their first win, moving them to the top half of the table on seven points. The club had four draws in four matches up to this point.

Elsewhere, Red Bull Leipzig picked up a road point at FC Koln with a 1-1 draw. Both goal came early in the match, as 19-year-old Scotsman Oliver Burke scored just five minutes into his Bundesliga debut for Leipzig, and Koln answered on 25 minutes through Yuya Osako.

In that match, 20-year-old Leipzig striker Timo Werner became the youngest player to ever reach 100 appearances in Bundesliga play. Leipzig moves up to eight points with the draw, while Koln has 10 points moving them up to a surprising third, still without a loss.