Spain: Neymar keeps scoring; Real Madrid drops more points

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It’s a reoccurring theme, the thin margin for error in Spain’s title race, but given how infrequently Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, or Real Madrid drop points, the notion doesn’t come up that often. But when it does, we’re typically talking about the Merengues, and after the team’s 2-2 draw at relegation-battling Osasuna, we’re again left wondering whether the Blaugrana and Atleti are going to led Carlo Ancelotti’s team back into this title race.

The “and” part is important. If we were talking about one team stumbling, Real Madrid’s odds would be better. Or if the goal was merely to make the top two, allowing los Blancos to take advantage of either team’s stumbles, Saturday’s draw wouldn’t be such a setback. Instead, the team’s second draw of the season (on top of two losses) leaves them five points back of both Barcelona and Atlético, tied atop La Liga’s table. Given each of those clubs have collected 43 of 48 possible points, Real Madrid approaching a point where they may need to run the table. It’s unclear whether (or when) Barça and Atlético will slow up.

The extent to which a title matters to a club’s chasing a 10th European Cup is worth debating, but if Sergio Ramos keeps getting red cards, the conversation will be moot. After 43 minutes on Saturday, Ramos earned his second booking, sending him to the dressing room with his team already down 2-0. Having just come back from a red card suspension, the Spanish international again left his team playing shorthanded, a disadvantage that was eventually wiped away when Osasuna midfielder Francisco Silva picked up his second yellow in the 79th.

By then, Isco had halved Real’s deficit, with Pepe eventually heading the visitors back even. Over the final 13 minutes, however, Real Madrid would only manage one shot on goal, Ancelotti’s team only registering four tries on target against a team that came into the game with 10 losses.

“The first 20 minutes were very good and it is incredible that we went 2-0 down and had ten men,” Ancelotti told media post game (as relayed by Reuters). “We responded well but we suffered a lot.”

In another league, these types of slips could be forgiven. Arsenal has already dropped points six times, yet the Gunners remain on top in England. In Spain, however, with Barcelona and Atlético pushing each other every week, one point instead of three is a more significant setback. Having dropped points four times this year, it’s unclear home many strikes are left in Real’s domestic campaign.

source: APNeymar strikes twice as Barcelona down Villarreal

The Yellow Submarine were a potential stumbling block for Barça, something that came iton focus when Mateo Muscacchio pulled back the defending champions’ one-goal lead minutes into the second half. Neymar, however, build on his first half penalty conversion (and his three-goal day in Champions League) with his second in the 68th, a goal set up by Alexis Sanchez. Against a dominated an inhibited Villarreal, Barça went on to a 2-1 win at the Nou Camp.

That the run of play was so lopsided, with Barcelona holding 76 percent of the ball, was a disappointment. To some, it was also a surprise. Villarreal has been an attacking team all season, but compensating for injuries, the visitors started Mexican international Giovani Dos Santos alone up top on Saturday. The result was one shot on goal: Musacchio’s conversion of an early second half corner kick.

“This performance has made me the happiest yet as it follows on from the good performances against Cartagena (4-1 win in the King’s Cup) and Celtic, and we were against a strong Villarreal side,” Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino said after the match, the Argentine in his first season with the club.

“Winning like that gives confidence to the players and it’s only a shame that the (Christmas) break is coming up.”

Atlético keep up with easy second half against Valencia

It was one of those days where Europa League came back to haunt them. Valencia, having finished off their group stage campaign on Thursday, had a relatively quick turnaround against Atlético, and although Diego Simeone’s team had played in Champions League on Wednesday, Los Che were still worse off. Though the started strong, Miroslav Dukic’s team ended the match without a shot on goal, giving up two penalty kicks in a 3-0 at the Vincente Calderon.

The result just piles on to what’s becoming a garish record for Atlético Madrid. They’re won 14 of 16 in league and have only lost once this season in all-competitions. Their nine goals allowed in La Liga gives them the league’s best defensive record, while the 43 goals are only one off league-best Barcelona. With two more goals on Sunday, Diego Costa is now tied with Cristiano Ronaldo for the league lead (17), a honor he’d hold be himself had a successful converted a second half penalty.

Winners of six of their last seven, Atlético continues to show it’s the equal of Barcelona, something few seemed to realize as Atleti were dubbed by some as a team to draw for Arsenal and Manchester City in Champions League. At this point, however, it’s Atlético’s crosstown rivals that are the easier matchup, with Diego Simeone’s side continuing to stretch Spain’s Big Two into a Top Three.

Elsewhere

  • Levante 2, Elche 1 – Goals in the 41st and 80th minutes from David Barral reversed an early score from Cristian Sapunaru, with Levante snapping their four-game losing streak.
  • Rayo Vallecano 0, Granada 2 – A second yellow card for Nacho in the 43rd minute gave Rayo little chance of pulling back Fran Rico’s 35th minute opener, with Riki eliminating all doubt in the 89th by giving Granada their insurance.
  • Malaga 1, Getafe 0 – Snapping his team’s three-game winless run, Roque Santa Cruz scored the game’s only goal in the 75th minute, giving Malaga their first win since beating Real Betis on Nov. 3.
  • Almeria 0, Espanyol 0 – Almeria miss their chance to climb out of the drop, with Verza failing to convert on a 23rd minute penalty kick.
  • Real Sociedad 5, Real Betis 1 – La Real  recovered from Champions League disappointment to throttle the league’s cellar dwellers, with the first two goals of the season from Imanol Agirretze complemented by scores from Ion Ansotegi, Antoine Griezmann (his 10th of the year) and Xabi Prieto.
  • Sevilla 1, Athletic Bilbao 1 – Perhaps the weekend’s most competitive matchup, fourth place Athletic takes a point from the Sanchez Pizjuan, with Sevilla climbing to seventh after Alberto Moreno’s fourth minute opener was cancelled out by Markel Susaeta’s sixth minute response.

Monday: Valladolid vs. Celta Vigo

French league terminates goal-line technology contract

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PARIS (AP) The French football league has terminated the contract with its goal-line technology provider after a series of glitches.

The LFP had already suspended the use of GoalControl, the German system that was deployed at the 2014 World Cup.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, the league will launch a tender in February to find a new provider of the technology that determines whether the ball crossed the line.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

In recent months, the French league had repeatedly expressed its discontent with GoalControl.

Goal-line technology entered soccer after a goal was wrongly disallowed at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA is already focused on fast-tracking the next phase of technology – video assistant referees – for the World Cup in June.

Goal-line technology and VAR were provided by Hawk-Eye at the Confederations Cup last year.

Bristol City’s Johnson: “They certainly have heard of us now”

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The Premier League world may see Bristol City next season, but it seems its manager has the personality to arrive on the top flight whether or not his Robins earn promotion this season.

Johnson, 36, earned plenty of plaudits after leading his Championship club to the League Cup semifinals, famously defeated Manchester United in the quarters.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Before that, Bristol beat Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and Watford. The Robins beat third tier Plymouth Argyle 5-0 in the first round.

Johnson was beaming after the Robins took Man City to the edge, closing to within a goal of extra time before Kevin De Bruyne‘s stoppage time number ended the tie 5-3 on aggregate.

“Absolutely I’m proud. It’s not just tonight but over the course of the season, particularly the cup run. It was a fantastic occasion, I’m sorry we couldn’t get the win but we played against the best side that I have ever seen live. They have so many good individuals.

“We kept going and it’s taken two injury-time goals to beat us. They certainly have [heard of us] now…everybody knows what we’re about. It’s been great.”

Bristol City is in the Championship’s fifth place, bidding for its first top flight campaign since 1980. Johnson should be a hot prospect to earn a shot in the Premier League should the Robins not make the jump.

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga