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.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.