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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

How Sevilla hope to destroy the Madrid-Barca duopoly in Spain

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 15: Samir Nasri  (2ndR) of Sevilla FC celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Sevilla FC at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on October 15, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla’s ambitious hopes of becoming a La Liga contender are beginning to materialize.

With an inspired team not afraid of confronting the powerhouses, Sevilla has shown it’s ready to take the next step and seriously challenge Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

One game before the halfway mark in the Spanish league, the squad revitalized by coach Jorge Sampaoli is only a point behind leader Madrid, a team it defeated in impressive fashion on Sunday.

The come-from-behind 2-1 win came thanks to another gritty performance by Sampaoli’s team, which has mixed high-intensity defense and a fast-paced attack to impose its style against opponents, no matter how strong they are.

“A victory in a game like this allows us to remain optimistic and believe that this team can continue this run if we maintain this same determination,” Sampaoli said. “Time will tell if we can succeed.”

Sevilla’s win halted Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sevilla had already come close to a victory midweek in the Copa del Rey, but it conceded two late goals in a 3-3 draw that led to its elimination. It lost the first leg the week before in Madrid 3-0.

“We had three difficult matches against Real Madrid and we were superior in two of them,” Sampaoli said. “We were able to beat a team that was unbeaten.”

[ MORE: PHOTO — Juventus unveil new logo, identity rebrand ]

Sevilla this season also defeated Atletico 1-0, drew at fifth-place Villarreal 0-0, and routed sixth-place Real Sociedad 4-0. It lost 2-1 to Barcelona in an encouraging display.

It has won six of its last seven league games, including four in a row. In front of its diehard fans at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Sevilla has won eight of its nine games.

It lost the European Super Cup title to Madrid in extra time last year, and this season advanced to the knockout stages of the Champions League, where it will face Leicester City in the Round of 16.

Sevilla has thrived in the lower-tiered Europa League, winning three straight titles, but its last Spanish league trophy was in 1946. The last time it finished second was in 1957.

It hasn’t had this much success in the league since 2007, when a squad that included Dani Alves and Frederic Kanoute fought for the title and eventually finished third behind Barcelona and champion Real Madrid. Sevilla led the competition after 18 matches that season, but with 37 points, two less than it has now.

Sevilla, the Copa del Rey winner in 2007 and 2010, also finished third in the league in 2009.

While Atletico Madrid made its way to the top thanks to the stout defense of coach Diego Simeone, Sampaoli’s Sevilla has been balancing a competitive defense with an effective offense led by players such as Samir Nasri, Victor “Vitolo” Machin, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Luciano Vietto.

[ MORE: PL Playback — One from six; who are the title favorites now? ]

It’s the first time since the winning campaign of 1956-57 that Sevilla has scored 38 goals in its first 18 league matches. Only Barcelona (47) and Madrid (46) have scored more this season.

“This team likes to play, it likes to attack,” said Stevan Jovetic, who scored the injury-time winner against Madrid on Sunday. “There is still a long way to go and we will be fighting against some top teams, but we will keep doing our thing and see where we can end up.”

Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who arrived with high expectations this season, has made a mark by successfully rotating players. Despite not having the same budget as Madrid or Barcelona, he has been able to make the most out of the squad put together by renowned sports director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez.

But despite the recent success and all the hype surrounding Sevilla, president Jose Castro is trying to keep the club grounded.

“We are excited, we are one point behind Madrid, and one ahead of Barcelona,” Castro said. “We will try to win it all, but the goal is to secure a spot in the Champions (League). The Spanish league is for other teams with a bigger budget.”

Sevilla’s next game is at last-place Osasuna on Sunday.

Courtois: Chelsea can still win title without Costa

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on November 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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A week from now, Diego Costa may still be a Chelsea player; he may also very well be off to the Chinese Super League by then.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The beauty insanity of the transfer market — and a volatile figure like Costa, in particular — is that no one knows which path he’ll take. After being made to train on his own on Monday, the best anyone can tell you is, “It’s 50-50.”

There aren’t many sides in the world that could stand to lose the league’s top goal-scorer (14 goals in 19 appearances this season; Chelsea have played 21 games) and still win the league title, but Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois believes that the current Blues squad is one that could hold onto its seven-point lead with 17 games remaining — quotes from FourFourTwo:

“Of course we have enough quality to replace Diego. Diego is important for us, but if he’s not there for one game, we know we can handle it as well.

“Was this a message to our rivals? Yes, just to see Chelsea won 3-0 and that loss at Spurs didn’t affect us and we can play without Diego if need be. I think everybody hoped for us to drop points and we didn’t so that was very good.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Eden Hazard has chipped in with nine goals of his own this season — his performances have been bordering on brilliance at points — while Pedro and Willian each have five league goals to their name. 19 goals from three secondary-type scorers is what champions are made of, until you consider the only other true striker currently in the squad, 23-year-old Premier League newcomer Michy Batshuayi, has 1) made just 13 PL appearances (all as a substitute); 2) scored just once, all the way back in August.

Louis van Gone: Ex-Man United, Barca boss LvG retires from coaching

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United celebrates after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Louis Van Gaal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In his mind, he probably imagine himself manager Manchester United for the duration of his three-year contract before riding off into the sunset after restoring the Red Devils as Premier League champions four months from now. At the very least, he’d agree to stay on one more season to complete a bit of unfinished business after narrowly missing out on the title in his third season in charge at Old Trafford.

Instead, he was fired last May, two days after lifting the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, and has been out of a job ever since. Van Gaal’s unemployment will now continue for the rest of his days, as the 65-year-old announced on Monday that he has retired from coaching after 26 years at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands (twice), Bayern Munich and Manchester United — quote from the BBC:

“I thought maybe I would stop, then I thought it would be a sabbatical, but now I do not think I will return to coaching.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

After the stress put upon his shoulders while at Man United, the last eight months must have felt like heaven to Van Gaal. Why on earth would anyone ever go back?

AFCON: DR Congo go top of Group C with win; Ivory Coast, Togo draw

Congo's Lomalisa Mutambala, right, with Morocco's Faycal Fajr, left, during their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Morocco at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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A roundup of all of Monday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ivory Coast 0-0 Togo

OYEM, Gabon (AP) Ivory Coast’s Europe-based stars stumbled in the heat of northern Gabon in their African Cup of Nations opener, with the defending champion held by Togo to 0-0 on Monday in another twist to start the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s title-winning coach fared worse as Congo beat Herve Renard’s Morocco 1-0 in the day’s second game.

Congo, a team that was on strike and refusing to train two days ago, finished with nine men on the field and on top of Group D.

Ivory Coast created few clear chances against Togo, with Wilfried Zaha‘s blocked shot in the second half after a clever run probably its best. Zaha was substituted two minutes later and, although Ivory Coast pressed hard in stages, it never broke open Togo’s well-drilled defense in the first game in Group C in the northern jungle town of Oyem.

Togo was competitive in the first half and had two good openings with around 10 minutes to go, when Kodjo Laba missed with a header from in front of goal and Mathieu Dossevi’s deflected shot dropped onto the roof of the net.

Four of the first six games at the African Cup have been draws, with Ivory Coast’s fellow title challenger, Algeria, held to 2-2 by Zimbabwe, a team that hasn’t qualified for the African Cup in over a decade. Also, host Gabon couldn’t beat outsider and tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau in the opening game.

“After Algeria-Zimbabwe and Gabon-Guinea-Bissau, we were very careful,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said. “But we still have two (group) matches so we are still confident.”

Togo even started better, and Dossevi was clear on goal in the 29th minute only for Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo to smother the chance.

Zaha was at the heart of Ivory Coast’s two best attacks, first in the first half when he sped down the right wing and sent across a dangerous low cross that was scrambled away. Then, in the 68th minute, he tricked his marker with a clever turn, cut inside, and hit a low shot that was headed to goal before two Togo defenders managed to get in the way.

Senegal and Congo are the only teams to win at the tournament.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

DR Congo 1-0 Morocco

Junior Kabananga got the winner for Congo in the 55th minute after a mistake from Morocco `keeper Monir el-Kajoui. Congo’s Lomalisa Mutambala was sent off for a wild tackle in the 81st and played the last six minutes of normal time plus six minutes of injury time with nine men when captain Gabriel Zakuani went off injured with all their substitutes used up.

Still, victory was a major mood-changer for Congo, whose players refused to train on Friday and Saturday, claiming they hadn’t been paid tournament bonuses. They also posted a video on social media during their strike, where they complained about their treatment.

On Monday, Morocco was the one frustrated: Midfielder M’Bark Boussoufa hit the crossbar in the second minute. Goalkeeper El-Kajoui tried to block a cross with his feet and managed only to divert the ball to Kabananga to score the winning goal. Then, substitutes Youssef En Nesyri and Youssef el-Arabi missed late chances.

Although Ivory Coast and later Renard failed their first tests at the tournament, the Stade d’Oyem held up despite a desperate race to be ready in time, which saw workers scrambling around the venue finishing all sorts of jobs on the day of the game. Television viewers won’t have seen the construction debris that surrounds the outside of the stadium, which juts out of dense jungle canopy around 15 kilometers outside of Oyem.

Even organizers couldn’t do anything about the heat during the opening match, though, with Togo coach Claude le Roy’s shirt covered in dark sweat patches after urging his team on to a promising draw against the defending champion Ivorians.

“It was very hot. We were sweating so much,” Le Roy said. “We did what it takes. We are satisfied with the draw.”

Tuesday’s AFCON schedule

Ghana vs. Uganda — 11 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Egypt — 2 p.m. ET