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.

Spanish federation maintains five-match ban for Ronaldo

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish soccer federation has ratified its decision to suspend Cristiano Ronaldo for five matches.

The Real Madrid forward will miss the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona. Madrid holds a 3-1 advantage.

He will also miss the first four matches of the Spanish league, which Madrid opens on Sunday at Deportivo La Coruna.

Ronaldo was suspended for one match after being sent off during Sunday’s first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Spanish media reports said Madrid appealed Ronaldo’s second yellow card, when the Portugal forward was booked for diving.

Ronaldo was given an additional four-match ban for shoving the referee in the back after he was shown the red card.

USMNT’s John Brooks out three months with thigh injury

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Uh oh.

The U.S. men’s national team will have to do without center back John Brooks for their crucial upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers after his club side, Wolfbsurg, confirmed he ruptured tendons in his thigh in a German Cup game last weekend.

Brooks, 24, became the most-expensive U.S. player in history this summer after he joined Wolfsburg from Bundesliga rivals Hertha Berlin for $23.3 million but the German-American will now spend a considerable amount of time on the sidelines.

“John Anthony Brooks will be out for VfL Wolfsburg long term,” Wolfsburg said in a statement. “In the first round of the DFB Cup the American ruptured a tendon in his right front thigh at FC Eintracht Norderstedt. This resulted in in-depth investigations on Tuesday and Wednesday and it is expected that Brooks will be able to return to the team training in about three months.”

So, a huge blow for Bruce Arena who will now have to find a new partner for Geoff Cameron at the heart of the USA’s defense.

Tim Ream, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez will be the frontrunners to slot into the back four, but Cameron and Steve Birnbaum struck up a good partnership in the past. Ream, who has had a fine start to the season with Fulham, would seem like the best option, especially with his ability to play as a left-sided center back.

Whatever way you slice it up, this isn’t great news for the USMNT ahead of their qualifiers against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 1 and at Honduras on Sept. 5.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Saints won’t sell Van Dijk; Aurier to Tottenham

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Southampton are said to be interested in signing Lazio’s Dutch international center back Wesley Hoedt and have issued an update on Virgil Van Dijk‘s future at St Mary’s.

[ MORE: Danny Rose to Chelsea?

Multiple outlets, including the Sun, say Saints have bid $20 million for Hoedt, 23, and many believe that is the first chain of action in star Virgil van Dijk leaving St Mary’s.

Van Dijk, 26, has put in a transfer request with Liverpool and Chelsea said to be interested in the $80 million valued center back, but the Press Association is reporting that Hoedt is not seen as a replacement for VVD.

Southampton continue to insist that their star man isn’t for sale despite his desire to leave and in an interview with BBC Radio Solent, Saints chairman Ralph Krueger issued an update on van Dijk’s situation on Wednesday.

“Our stance remains based on our strategy from May when we spoke last. I already told you the numbers that we have transferred in and transferred out and it is time to stop that. We really thought this was a good summer for that. Strength of the contracts, age of the group and the experiences of last year like going to a cup final gave us the feeling this is a group that tasted that winning and keeping them together would give us the chance to reach another level.

“Virgil is not the only player that is involved in this he is part of the whole strategy of not selling. Nobody is for sale that we don’t want to sell and so he is not for sale in this window. We have said it more than once. We are not done with the window yet. We are still looking at some options. I am not going to promise anything. It has got to be something that truly strengthens the squad and fits into our group.”

Saints currently have Japanese international Maya Yoshida, England U-21 international Jack Stephens and Poland U-21 defender Jan Bednarek as their three central defensive options available, and it is likely Hoedt would come in to take a starting role in place of either Yoshida or Stephens.

If Van Dijk’s situation can be resolved amicably and he returns to the squad then Saints’ defense would be much stronger with two Dutch internationals at the heart of their defense. Conceding goals hasn’t been the biggest issue over the past 12 months for the south coast club but a drought of six home Premier League games without a goal is perhaps the biggest concern for new manager Mauricio Pellegrino.


French outlet L’Equipe are reporting that Tottenham have agreed to sign Paris Saint-Germain’s Serge Aurier for $25.7 million.

Aurier was previously linked with a move to Manchester United and both Inter Milan and Juventus are said to be interested in the defender.

The right back, 24, has fallen down the pecking order for Les Parisiens after Dani Alves joined PSG from Juventus this summer, plus Thomas Meunier is also around at the Parcs des Princes.

Per the report the deal for Aurier is fully agreed but is dependent on his appeal hearing against his conviction of assaulting a police officer in Paris. He was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence and that could complicate a move to the UK as Aurier could not travel to England to play in PSG’s UEFA Champions League game at Arsenal last November.

The Ivory Coast international has pace, power and is versatile, making him a perfect fit for Spurs’ defensive unit. After losing Kyle Walker to Manchester City for $64.3 million many believed Kieran Tripier would be the automatic starter for Tottenham at right back, but with the England international currently out injured Spurs academy product Kyle Walker-Peters (I know, confusing Stick with it) put in a man of the match display at right back against Newcastle United during the opening weekend of the Premier League season.

Aurier’s added experience would help Spurs in the UCL this season and there’s no questioning they need some extra cover in the back with Mauricio Pochettino also said to be closing in on a move for Ajax’s Colombian center back Davinson Sanchez.

Premier League player Power Rankings – Week 1

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It is time to take stock of the Premier League’s opening weekend and select the top 20 players who dazzled to open up the 2017-18 campaign.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Romelu Lukaku (Man United)
  2. Steve Mounie (Huddersfield)
  3. Nemanja Matic (Man United)
  4. David Silva (Man City)
  5. Alexandre Laczette (Arsenal)
  6. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
  7. Dele Alli (Tottenham)
  8. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
  9. Wayne Rooney (Everton)
  10. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
  11. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
  12. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)
  13. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea)
  14. Kyle Walker (Man City)
  15. Stefano Okaka (Watford)
  16. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield)
  17. Sam Vokes (Burnley)
  18. Jay Rodriguez (West Brom)
  19. Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea)
  20. Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)