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.

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.

UEFA Champions League Weds. preview: Chelsea, Man Utd look to break out

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Only one of 16 teams was held off the score sheet on Tuesday. Could the same level of entertainment reach the UEFA Champions League a day later?

Two more Premier League teams take the pitch on Wednesday, with Manchester United facing its stiffest test of the group stage and Chelsea with a tricky visit from AS Roma.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

Manchester United has a significant challenge in Benfica, and may need a man familiar with the Estadio da Luz to help them out. Center back Eric Bailly remains out for United, which could bring Victor Lindelof into the fold to help stop Haris Seferovic, Gabriel Barbosa, Raul Jimenez, and especially Jonas.

Coming off a sleepy weekend draw versus Liverpool in an underwhelming derby, United will take on a desperate Benfica team which is traditionally strong but lost at home to CSKA Moscow and was crushed in Switzerland by Basel.

(AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Speaking of the need to rebound, Chelsea’s loss to Crystal Palace still has many scratching their heads. Fortunately, Roma is also in a mini-funk after a weekend loss to Napoli that ended a five-match winning streak.

There’s a reunion for Antonio Rudiger inside Stamford Bridge with Roma in town. I Lupi has been pretty one-dimensional in terms of offense, with ex-Man City man and reigning Serie A capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko. He’s scored eight times in nine matches for Roma this season.

Full Wednesday UCL schedule
All kickoffs at 2:45 p.m. ET except where indicated

Qarabag vs. Atletico Madrid — Noon ET
Anderlecht vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica vs. Manchester United
Juventus vs. Sporting Lisbon
Barcelona vs. Olympiacos
Chelsea vs. Roma
Bayern Munich vs. Celtic
CSKA Moscow vs. Basel

U-17 World Cup wrap: England advances to meet USA

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The United States now knows it’ll have to take down England’s best to get to the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup in India.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

England, don’t laugh, won in penalty kicks after a scoreless match with Japan, advancing to meet the Baby Yanks.


England 0-0 (5-3, PKs) Japan

There wasn’t a single miss amongst the England shooters, as Rhian Brewster (Liverpool), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Phil Foden (Man City), Nya Kirby (Crystal Palace), and Curtis Anderson (Man City) converted from the spot to set up a date against the U.S.

Mali 5-1 Iraq

Lassana Ndiaye scored twice to join France’s Amine Gouiri atop the goal scoring list for the tournament as Mali advances to face the winner of Ghana vs. Niger.

France 1-2 Spain

Barcelona prospects Juan Miranda and Abel Ruiz get the better of France to set up a date with high-flying Iran.

 

Iran 2-1 Mexico

Iran conceded for just the second time in the tournament, but not before Mohammad Sharifi and Allahyar Sayyad (both of Iranian club Saifa) made it 2-0 by the 11th minute.

UEFA Champions League wrap: Tables turned on wild day

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One clean sheet in eight Tuesday matches certainly helped the entertainment value of the UEFA Champions League, and the group ramifications follow suit.

Borussia Dortmund whiffed on a chance to take advantage of Real Madrid’s home draw versus Spurs, while Sevilla was waxed in Russia, and Besiktas continues to strut in UCL play.

Real Madrid 1-1 Tottenham HotspurRECAP, VIDEO

Raphael Varane’s plans to mark Harry Kane were subverted by the French defender’s unwitting legs, but Serge Aurier chopped down Toni Kroos in the 42nd minute for a yellow card and penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo sent beyond the reach of Spurs backstop Hugo Lloris.

It was Lloris’ outstanding day, along with a couple timely Keylor Navas saves, that kept the score line 1-1 after 90 minutes. The backstops will likely match wits again come Nov. 1 at Wembley Stadium.

Manchester City 2-1 NapoliRECAP

Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored in the ninth and 13th minutes as City has been an unwelcoming host for the Neapolitan side. Ederson stopped a Dries Mertens penalty, adding insult to Napoli’s twin concessions, but Napoli would get a second penalty kick and pulled back a goal courtesy of Amadou Diawara.

Monaco 1-2 Besiktas

Reported Newcastle United and Crystal Palace target Cenk Tosun scored a pair of goals as group-leading Besiktas came back to beat Monaco after Radamel Falcao made it 1-0 to the hosts.

Feyenoord 1-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

Similar story in the Netherlands, where Ex-Watford man Steven Berghuis gave the Eredivisie hosts a lead only to see a Bernard brace lead Shakhtar at De Kuip.

Spartak Moscow 5-1 Sevilla

Liverpool’s score line was a bit surprising, but this one raised eyebrows even given Sevilla’s long road (or flight path) to Russia. Quincy Promes scored twice to make Sevilla consider its Europa roots (though plenty of time remains in the group stage).

Spartak’s Luiz Adriano scores past Sevilla’s Sergio Rico (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Maribor 0-7 LiverpoolRECAP

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are sent their finishing demons off a cliff. It was 3-0 after 20 minutes, 4-0 at half, and when all was said and done there were braces for Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to go with single markers from Philippe Coutinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

APOEL Nicosia 1-1 Borussia Dortmund

A significant step backward for BVB, who would’ve done well to take advantage of Real and Spurs drawing at the Bernabeu. The Germans even trailed for five second-half minutes before Sokratis Papastathopoulos provided the equalizing goal.

RB Leipzig 3-2 Porto

Five first half goals felt like the start of something special, but the upstart Germans held on through a scoreless second half to claim their first UCL win.