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Spain: Diego Costa’s double and the $52 million that could decide La Liga

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Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo usually dominate La Liga’s scoring charts, but through 17 rounds of this season’s competition, a Brazilian-cum-Spaniard is setting the pace, scoring goals at a rate that would press a healthy Messi to keep up. But with the Argentine icon sidelined for Barcelona, it’s up to Ronaldo to challenge Atléitco Madrid’s Diego Costa for the Pichichi, a race the 25-year-old striker leads after two goals on Saturday. The brace gave Atleti a 3-2 win over visiting Levante, vaulting Costa to 18 goals on the season.

Costa, on to track to represent Spain in his native Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, gave Atlético their first lead in the 47th minute, beating Levante goalkeeper Keylor Navas in the lower-left corner with a volley off Gabi’s restart. Thirty minutes later, converting a penalty conceded by Rubén García, Costa secured Atleti’s 15th win in 17 games, temporarily moving the colchoneros to the top of the Primera Division.

“He had another great game,” Atlético head coach Diego Simeone said after the game. “He continues to show that if the Ballon d’Or deadline had been extended a bit, he would probably have been in the fight for it.”

Barcelona would reclaim their league lead on Sunday, the Blaugrana’s 5-2 win at Getafe keeping Gerardo Martino’s team top on goal difference, but Costa would finish the weekend first on the league’s scoring chart. With Ronaldo only scoring once in Real Madrid’s 3-2 win at Valencia, Costa has a one-goal lead on the Pichichi favorite, Messi’s hamstring injury having opened the gate for a new champion.

If the tabloids are to be believed, however, Costa’s quest for the crown could end at some point next month. As all players in Spain do, the 25-year-old has a release clause, but because the two-time Brazilian international’s rise has been particularly steep, his clause doesn’t reflect his current value.

Whereas most release values are prohibitively high, Costa’s is just over $52 million. While that price prevents most from dreaming of swiping Costa, it may not prevent a team like Chelsea or Arsenal from unlocking that door in January. If Costa wants to pursue a huge payday, Atlético may not be able to stop him.

As Manchester United found out this summer, activating a release clause from beyond Spain’s borders can be tricky, but with Costa’s value having peaked while teams like Chelsea need a number nine, that $52 million could loom particularly large in two Spanish races. Not only could Costa’s quest for the Pichichi end if his release clause is triggered, but Atlético’s challenge of Barcelona could fade if its star elects to cash in on his newfound success.

source: Getty Images
Pedro Rodríguez’s eighth, ninth, and 10th goals of the season vault him to Barcelona’s team lead, with the defending Spanish champions winning 5-2 on Sunday. (Photo: Getty Images)

Barcelona, Real Madrid complete perfect weekend for top three

One day after Atlético had taken first place, Barcelona and Real Madrid did their parts to maintain pace, Spain’s traditional big two pushing the league’s title-contending trio forward with wins at Getafe and Valencia.

Barcelona dug a hole for themselves by conceding twice within 15 minutes in Madrid but fired back through Pedro Rodríguez by halftime. The Spanish international scored three times in 10 minutes to give Barcelona a lead going into the break, one Cesc Fábregas would build on with a second half brace. Matching Atlético’s 15-1-1 mark, Barcelona reclaimed first place, their +37 goal difference besting Atleti by two.

[MORE: Pedro hat-trick in nine minutes gives Barcleona comeback win]

In Sunday’s final match, Valencia pulled back two Real Madrid leads, Pablo Piatti answering Ángel Di María in the first half before Jeremy Mathieu rebuked Ronaldo in the second. Had Jesé given Los Che more than eight minutes to respond, El Real may have conceded again, but after a 3-2 win at the Mestalla, Carlo Ancelotti’s team stays within five of the top.

source: Getty Images
Christian Stuani scored twice as Espanyol went up four on Valladolid. (Photo: Getty Images)

Elsewhere

  • Elche 1-0 Malaga – Ignacio Camacho’s first goal since Jan. 16 had the visitors up after six minutes, a lead which became much easier to defend when Damián Suárez earned a second yellow in the 60th. The teams combined for four shots on goal.
  • Villarreal 1-2 Sevilla – One point in their last three means the honeymoon’s over for the Yellow Submarine, who fall to sixth after their loss on Saturday. Sevilla got goals from Cala and Carlos Bacca before being reduced to 10 after Cala’s 86th minute red card. Jérémy Perbet converted the ensuing penalty, but Villarreal still fell to their second straight loss.
  • Real Betis 0-1 Almeria – A winnable game for Betis turned into the cellar dwellers’ 11th loss of the season when they were unable to pullback Ramón Azeez’s fourth minute goal.
  • Espanyol 4-2 Valladolid – For the second time this season, Espanyol explodes for four, with goals on either side of halftime from Christian Stuani complemented by Sergio García’s fifth minute penalty conversion and Victor Sánchez’s second half tally. Once up 4-0, Espanyol conceded to Javi Guerra and Victor Pérez in the final 15 minutes.
  • Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Rayo Vallecano – Athletic have a four-point cushion ahead of fifth place Real Sociedad after Mikel Rico’s 66th minute goal broke a 1-1 tie, sending Ernesto Valverde’s team to their third win in four.
  • Celta Vigo 1-1 Osasuna – Coming off a disappointing 3-0 Monday loss at Valladolid, Luis Enrique’s team never found net, Lolo’s 34th minute own goal pulling back Emiliano’s Armenteros’s 17th minute opener for Osasuna.

Standings
(all teams have played 17 matches)

1. Barcelona, 46 pts.
2. Atlético Madrid, 46 pts.
3. Real Madrid, 41 pts.
4. Athletic Bilbao 33 pts.
5. Real Sociedad, 29 pts.
6. Villarreal, 28 pts.
7. Sevilla, 26 pts.
8. Getafe, 23 pts.
9. Espanyol, 22 pts.
10. Valencia, 20 pts.
11. Granada, 20 pts.
12. Levante, 20 pts.
13. Malaga, 20 pts.
14. Elche, 17 pts.
15. Celta Vigo, 16 pts.
16. Almeria, 16 pts.
17. Osasuna, 15 pts.
18. Valladolid, 15 pts.
19. Rayo Vallecano, 13 pts.
20. Real Betis, 10 pts.

Watford “Behind The Badge” airs third installment; Catch up on Episode 2 here

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Catch up on Watford’s look “Behind The Badge” ahead of Sunday’s third episode of the four-part glimpse into one of the Premier League’s promoted sides.

The Hornets sit 11th, currently 7 points clear of relegation danger, and are giving fans a better idea of what’s been going on at Vicarage Road.

[ MORE: Behind the Badge archive

In an exclusive series, NBC Sports followed around the Hornets in a very similar fashion to HBO’s Hard Knocks which joins the preseason camp of one NFL team each summer.

Below is the schedule for the three remaining episodes on Watford, which you can watch on NBCSN and live online via NBCSports.com in the coming weeks, plus a link to watch episode one in full from last week.


First episode: Watch full episode, here
Second episode: Embedded above
Third episode: Sunday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Fourth episode: Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 p.m. ET – NBCSN

Follow @NicholasMendola

MLS Cup Final preview: Seattle, Toronto battle subzero temps for first Cup

Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley walks off the field after a training session, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016, in Toronto, for the MLS Cup soccer championship. Toronto hosts the Seattle Sounders on Saturday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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  • First MLS Cup Final for both
  • Sounders all-time 7W-2L-2T
  • TFC joined in 2007, Seattle 2009

It’ll be in the high twenties (-1 Celsius) when Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in Ontario (Kickoff is Saturday at 8 p.m. EDT).

Combine the visible breath and slight chance of snow with a BMO Field which has been relentlessly loud throughut TFC’s playoff run, and we have the makings of an all-timer.

[ MORE: PST’s MLS Cup roundtable ]

Toronto and Seattle met up at the same venue on July 2, the 1-1 draw perhaps a bit deflated by the absence of Clint Dempsey for Seattle and TFC’s American duo of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Seattle superstar Nicolas Lodeiro wasn’t there, either, still weeks away from arriving from Boca Juniors.

This is the second MLS Cup Final at BMO Field, after Colorado defeated FC Dallas in 2010. TFC men Drew Moor and Clint Irwin were part of the championship-winning Rapids in that one.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris greets fans who gathered to send off the team after MLS soccer training, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders were scheduled to travel to Toronto later Wednesday to prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Seattle’s Jordan Morris (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

[ MORE: PST’s Michael Bradley interview ]

Toronto will bring star power to go with a challenging formation; While accolades rightly go to Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Sebastian Giovinco, the Reds’ 3-5-2 under Greg Vanney features versatile wide men in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow.

Seattle is powered through Nicolas Lodeiro, the ex-Boca Juniors playmaker who has been nearly as effective as Giovinco (albeit with a smaller MLS sample size). Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the ex-TFC man, has been very good at the back, but can the Sounders’ back line handle Altidore and Giovinco?

The metronomes could be the difference. Bradley’s been good for TFC, but Osvaldo Alonso gave an MLS MVP caliber performance this season.

[ MORE: PST talks with Ozzie Alonso ]

What they’re saying

Toronto FC keeper Irwin on the weather: “It’s probably the most difficult part. As a field player, you can move around. You’re warmer, more active. At this point, there’s not much we can do other than bundle up, and I’ll stay moving back there.”

Seattle forward Jordan Morris on Lodeiro“The first thing Lodeiro said to me is, ‘When I get the ball, you just run.’ I think of him like a quarterback.”

Prediction

Look to the engine rooms here. Alonso is a handful and a magnificent passer of the ball. On his day, Bradley is even better. Will it be? Neither player will shirk from pressure. We’re thinking extra time after a 1-1 match. And Toronto’s depth and home field will propel it to a 2-1 win.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Premier League Preview: Leicester City vs. Manchester City

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 29:  Bacary Sagna of Manchester City clears the ball from Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester City at The King Power Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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  • Man City leads all-time 53W-29D-28L
  • Leicester took 4 of 6 pts last season
  • MCFC won previous four

To cure what ails, Leicester City has to knock off one of the top contenders to its Premier League throne: Manchester City (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. EDT Saturday on NBC and NBCSports.com).

There are some advantages for Leicester, though, as Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero are suspended for their red cards picked up the loss to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola used Pablo Zabaleta next to Fernando in the UCL draw with Celtic, and looks set for the same come Saturday.

Leicester rested the majority of its starters in a 5-0 loss at Porto this week, following up a 2-1 setback at Sunderland that left the champs just two points ahead of the 18th and 19th placed clubs in the PL.

What they’re saying

Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri on the task at hand: “I was waiting for a period like this. Now it’s important to react with a big effort together from the team. That is my focus now. We have to be focused on these matches until Christmas Day. We have to get points. We need points and we have to fight. This part of the season is our key moment. I think every match gives us an opportunity. We have to fight. I repeat, we have to fight.”

Man City’s Pep Guardiola on Zabaleta’s positional change“But I think Pablo Zabaleta can play in the middle – he is very experienced and he can play there as he did very well against Celtic. I think in the last years of his career he’ll play more in the middle and it gives us another option.”

Prediction

As much as the injuries hurt Man City, there’s certain harm in the wounded unit that fell 3-1 to Chelsea. We believe the Foxes will strike, but Kelechi Iheanacho has proven more than a suitable fill-in for Aguero. Man City 2-1.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks – Week 15

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Week 15 of the Premier League is here.

[ STREAM: Every PL game live ] 

If you, like me, love to dissect all the games and predict what the score will be and which team will win, I encourage you to get involved in the comments section below. Let’s have a bit of fun.

Okay, so I’ve consulted my crystal ball and here’s how we see things panning out. Click play on the videos below to hear my score prediction and preview of each game.

[ VIDEO: Previews of every PL game – Week 15 ]

With the first section labelled “basically, free money” for the picks I think are dead certs. The section labelled “don’t touch this” means if you’re betting I advise you to stay clear, while the “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” section are the longshots. If it is better odds you are after, those are the picks to go for.


BASICALLY, FREE MONEY

Chelsea 3-0 West Brom – (Sunday, 7 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Liverpool 4-1 West Ham – (Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Leicester City 1-3 Man City – (Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBC) – [STREAM]

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

DON’T TOUCH THIS… 

Swansea City 2-3 Sunderland – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, CNBC) – [STREAM]

Watford 0-1 Everton – (Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

Southampton 1-1 Middlesbrough – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]

“SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE’S A CHANCE…”

Man United 1-2 Tottenham – (Sunday, 9:15 a.m. ET, NBCSN) – [STREAM]

Hull City 2-1 Crystal Palace – (Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, Premier League Extratime) – [STREAM]