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.

Bournemouth 2-2 Watford: Cherries battle back to draw

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Benik Afobe of AFC Bournemouth scores his sides second goal during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Watford at Vitality Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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  • King, Afobe equalize
  • Kabasele, Deeney put Hornets ahead
  • 4 draw in 4 PL meetings

Bournemouth and Watford once again played out an entertaining draw in the Premier League.

In their four meetings in the PL, all four have now ended in draws. Watford twice took the lead through Christian Kabasele and Troy Deeney but goals from Josh King and Beink Afobe pegged the Hornets back twice.

With the point Watford move on to 24 points, while Bournemouth has 26 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Jack Wilshere dinked a lovely ball to Ryan Fraser who headed towards goal but Heurelho Gomes saved well as the home side started well.

Wilshere then struck a strong shot on goal which Gomes had to save as it was one way traffic.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Just as Bournemouth looked to be running away with things, Watford won a corner after a bad back pass from Fraser.

From that set piece Miguel Britos popped up at the back post and his header back across goal was nodded in by Kabasele. 1-0 to Watford as the Belgian international Kabasele had his second goal in the Premier League.

Tom Cleverley went close for Watford before the break but his low shot flashed wide as the Hornets led the Cherries.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Within three minutes of the second half Bournemouth were level as Adam Smith whipped in a great cross and King finished. 1-1. Game on.

Watford almost went ahead as Jose Holebas’ super strike was tipped wide by Artur Boruc. Gomes then denied Fraser with a wonderful stop to his left as the Bournemouth winger cut inside and curled an effort towards the top corner.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Somewhat against the run of play Watford then went 2-1 up as Deeney headed home from close range as a corner caused mayhem in the box. Could the Hornets hold on this time? Nope.

Substitute Afobe then got free in the left side of the box and he sent a shot across goal and into the far corner which went under Gomes and in. 2-2 and that’s how another entertaining clash between these teams finished.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Lineups, Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  General view inside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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The weekend’s marquee match sees Tottenham Hotspur going for a season sweep of Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Gabriel Jesus could make his Manchester City debut, beginning the day among Pep Guardiola‘s substitutes.

On the other side, Eric Dier moves into the middle with Toby Alderweireld in the absence of Jan Vertonghen. Kevin Wimmer slots in as well.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Bravo, Zabaleta (C), Otamendi, Kolarov. Clichy, Yaya, Silva, De Bruyne, Sane. Sterling, Aguero. Subs: Caballero, Kompany, Fernando, Nolito, Delph, Stones, G. Jesus.

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris (C), Walker, Dier, Alderweireld, Wimmer, Rose, Wanyama, Dembele, Eriksen, Dele, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Trippier, Davies, Carter-Vickers, Winks, Sissoko, Son.

West Bromwich Albion 2-0 Sunderland: Black Cats meet 20th

West Bromwich Albion's Darren Fletcher, left, celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game against Sunderland, during their English Premier League soccer match at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich, England, Saturday Jan. 21, 2017. (Nigel French/PA via AP)
Nigel French/PA via AP
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  • Fletcher, Brunt scores
  • WBA stays 8th
  • Sunderland goes bottom

Darren Fletcher and Chris Brunt struck in quick first half succession as West Bromwich Albion handed Sunderland a 2-0 defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday.

West Brom is up to 32 points, comfortably midtable and aiming for some breaks atop the table and good Cup fortune to get into the European mix.

Sunderland is now three points back of 17th place, held by Swansea City. The Black Cats do have better goal differential than Swans, but sit 20th.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Chances for a minor upset didn’t look good early, though Sunderland dodged a bullet with Billy Jones‘ takedown of Salomon Rondon was judged not to merit a West Brom penalty kick.

Fletcher hit his target in the 30th minute to make partial amends, at least karmically, as West Brom went ahead when he chested Gareth McAuley‘s header into position for a volleyed finish.

Brunt was next, and his goal was just as fine to view. It started with intrepid Matty Phillips, whose cross was palmed back to Nacer Chadli. The ex-Spurs man hit the cross bar, but Brunt volleyed that home.

Jake Livermore nearly scored on debut for the Baggies, who rarely looked to be in trouble.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Stoke City 1-1 Man United: Rooney sets record with late goal

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  • Mata scores own goal
  • United have 25 shots
  • Rooney breaks record 

A historic moment arrived as Manchester United scored a stoppage time equalizer to draw 1-1 against Stoke City at the bet365 Stadium on Saturday.

Wayne Rooney scored that equalizer in stunning fashion to set the new record as United’s all-time leading goalscorer ahead of Sir Bobby Charlton.

[ VIDEO: Rooney reacts to breaking the record ]

Rooney now has 250 goals in his United career and although Jose Mourinho’s side slipped up in their quest to move closer to the top four they have extended their unbeaten run to 17 games in all competitions.

An own goal from Juan Mata after Erik Pieters‘ cross looked like it would be the difference as United had over 65 percent possession and plenty of shots on target but couldn’t break down a stubborn Stoke outfit.

However Rooney’s moment arrived in stoppage time and the rest, as they say, is history.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Early on there was a scare for Stoke as a high ball into the box saw Lee Grant catch the ball but collide with Ryan Shawcross and the loose ball was eventually cleared.

Stoke took the lead in the 19th minute as Marko Arnautovic played in Pieters and his cross deflected off Juan Mata and in at the near post. 1-0 to the Potters via Mata’s own goal.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

Ibrahimovic then set up Mata unselfishly but the Spaniard’s shot went over from five yards out as as Bruno Martins Indi did enough to put him off. United looked increasingly dangerous as the first half wore on as Zlatan set up Mata again but the chance came and went with Martins Indi blocking his shot.

Grant then saved a volley from Marouane Fellaini and another from Zlatan but the Potters led at the break despite United having 12 attempts.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

In the second half Mata went close and United continued to push hard and Marcus Rashford came off the bench to try and get Mourinho’s men back in it.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

On the break Stoke looked dangerous and Xherdan Shaqiri twice went close as the Swiss winger saw his volley saved by David De Gea and then a shot blocked by Chris Smalling.

Paul Pogba had a shot blocked and then Rashford curled an effort a yard wide of the goal when free in the box as United couldn’t find a way through.

On as a sub, Rooney then had a glorious chance to set the new goalscoring record but he sent a header over the bar. Jesse Lingard then had a shot from distance which deflected off Ryan Shawcross and hit the crossbar.

Yet Rooney was not to be denied as he curled him a sumptuous free kick to set the record and grab a point for his side.