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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.

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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.

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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.

AT THE HALF: Man City 1-2 Monaco; Atleti lead in UCL round of 16

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21:  Radamel Falcao Garcia of AS Monaco celebrates as he scores their first and equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Manchester City FC and AS Monaco at Etihad Stadium on February 21, 2017 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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We’re only halfway through the first leg of Manchester City versus Monaco, and Bayer Leverkusen versus Atletico Madrid, in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, but the goals are coming fast and furious from England to Germany.

[ MORE: Rooney left out of Man United’s Europa League squad (again) ]

Man City found themselves 1-0 up at the Etihad Stadium, when Leroy Sane turned on video-game mode to set up Raheem Sterling for the opening goal in the 28th minute. But, as City have so typically done in the Champions League, they began self-destructing four minutes later. Radamel Falcao‘s diving header brought Monaco level in the 32nd minute, and Kylian Mbappe’s finish over the head of Willy Caballero put the visitors 2-1 up eight minutes later.

[ MORE: FA Cup QF draw — Chelsea vs. Man United; Arsenal vs. Lincoln City ]

As for Tuesday’s other round-of-16 tie, Saul Niguez simultaneously opened the scoring and snatched the soul of every Bayer defender who dared to contest him. Antoine Griezmann added a second for Atleti, who hold their 2-0 lead at halftime, seven minutes later.

LIVE: UCL last 16 – Man City v Monaco; Bayer v Atletico Madrid

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 06:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City celebrates after scoring his sides fourth goal during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Manchester City at London Stadium on January 6, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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Two more UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clashes get underway on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

Manchester City host AS Monaco at the Etihad Stadium with Pep Guardiola knowing his shaky defense must stay strong against the leading scorers in France’s top-flight. Monaco have already come to England and beaten Tottenham Hotspur in the UCL group stage and under talented manager Leanardo Jardim the likes of Radamel Falcao looks fired up and ready to go.

That said, City have been much better in recent weeks and have shown their best form this season in the UCL. Remember, Pep has never failed to reach the semifinals of this competition as a manager. Quite the record.

Elsewhere Bayer Leverkusen welcome Atletico Madrid to the BayArena with Mexico’s Javier Hernandez back among the goals and aiming to give the Bundesliga outfit a lead to take with them to Madrid.

The runners up late season, Atleti are currently fourth in La Liga but Diego Simeone’s side have looked stellar in Europe this season once again as they finished above Bayern Munich to win their group. Expect a tense, tough game in Germany.

Click on the link above to follow live commentary on both games, while we will have reaction and analysis on all of the UCL knockout games here at Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday’s UCL Round of 16, first legs

Manchester City vs. AS Monaco – 2:45 p.m. ET
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid – 2:45 p.m. ET

Bayern defends Ancelotti for middle-finger gesture to fans

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MUNICH (AP) Bayern Munich has defended coach Carlo Ancelotti for raising his middle finger to Hertha Berlin fans after supposedly being spit at following a dramatic 1-1 draw in the Bundesliga.

[ MORE: Shaw in betting investigation ]

Bayern says “basically we find the human reaction of Carlo Ancelotti with the gesture to be emotionally understandable after the nasty spitting attack.”

Robert Lewandowski’s injury-time equalizer for Bayern on Saturday prompted altercations between Bayern and Hertha players in a heated atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game live

The German soccer federation ended its investigation into the matter after Ancelotti agreed to pay 5,000 euros ($5,300) to its foundation for social work.

In 2014, Norbert Duewel, then-coach of second-division club Union Berlin, was fined 3,500 euros for raising his middle finger in a 4-1 loss at home against 1860 Munich.

Sacha Kljestan ready to take reigns as Red Bulls captain

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 6:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls dribbles past Steven Beitashour #33 of Toronto FC  during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 6, 2016 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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When news began to spread of a trade regarding one of Major League Soccer’s most recognizable faces, Sacha Kljestan was with his New York Red Bulls teammate at the U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

The clarity over Dax McCarty’s move to Eastern Conference foe Chicago Fire is very much uncertain — even a month after the fact — but the veteran midfielder’s absence left an opening for the Red Bulls captaincy.

[ MORE: PST talks with Atlanta president Darren Eales ahead of 2017 ]

And that was an opportunity that Kljestan was honored to be named.

“I was just proud. My first feeling was that I’m thankful for Jesse [Marsch] having that trust in me and my teammates having that trust in me as well, which is very important,” Kljestan said. “But I just feel very proud to represent Jesse and the coaching staff and represent every member of the club that works with the New York Red Bulls. Most importantly I want to represent the fans in a way that they are proud of.”

Fortunately for the Red Bulls, what they have had over the past two seasons in Kljestan is a player that not only provides flash and brilliance on the pitch but also stability off the field and in the locker room.

Since making his return to MLS in 2015, Kljestan has notched an astounding 34 assists — the most of any player during that span — to go along with his 14 goals.

Red Bulls manager Jesse Marsch has been impressed with Kljestan’s work ethic since bringing in the Designated Player, and he says little thought needed to be put into naming the U.S. international his squad’s next captain.

“It almost wasn’t even a choice at all,” Marsch said in regards to naming Kljestan his primary captain. “He had served as basically a vice-captain for two years and it was an natural fit. There were discussions with the staff but I think it was pretty clear that this is a guy that is a top leader. That being said, we’ve said all along that the captain isn’t a one man job.

“It’s about a community of people and certainly the two guys that will support Sacha the most will be Luis [Robles] and Brad [Wright-Phillips]. I think the three of them will take on big leadership roles and there’s room for young guys to blossom into bigger leadership positions as well.”

The Red Bulls have undoubtedly proven their success in the regular season since rebranding to the aforementioned name in 2006 when the Global giant, Red Bull, acquired the franchise.

The last 11 seasons have provided the club with plenty to cheer about, including two Supporters’ Shield crowns and only missing out on the postseason once, but the Red Bulls have struggled to get past one major hurdle.

Winning an MLS Cup is challenging.

It’s only something that 11 teams have accomplished in the league’s history. Of those 11 teams, only five of them have won two or more titles since MLS’ inception in 1996.

Marsch’s approach since day one has been very clear to both his team and the opponents that the Red Bulls face. The goal has been to play an attacking-minded press, similar to that of Barcelona in the club’s hay day.

While that pressing style likely won’t change, the team is prepared to add another dimension to its attack by switching to a two-forward setup starting in 2017.

“With our little tweak in formation that we’re doing now, we’re trying to be less susceptible to opening ourselves up and creating too much space between our lines,” Kljestan said. “We’re working on ways now to become more connected and become harder to break down and really make teams earn their chances against us. We might go through some growing pains with the formation but I think it’ll make us stronger in the long run.”

The Red Bulls begin their 2017 journey on Wednesday when they face the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The two sides will meet a second time on March 2 in Vancouver.