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Spain: Alexis Sánchez hat trick, battle for fourth highlight La Liga’s return

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With Barcelona’s trip to Atlético Madrid less than a week away, eyes normally fixated on La Liga would be forgiven for looking into the distance, fixating on a battle that could define the Primera División campaign. After this weekend’s results, both Barça and Atleti have 49 points though 18 games. In a league where the leaders are one pace for 103 points, a victory head-to-head match could prove decisive.

This weekend, however, was about the buildup, one that saw Barcelona cruise past visiting Elche while Atlético snared three points from an increasing feisty Málaga. In the process, however, the weekend’s headlines were stolen by another stand out performance from Barça’s supporting cast and a fight slightly farther down the table.

With Messi out, Sánchez shines in Barça route

Lionel Messi was supposed to be back this weekend, but Barcelona decided not to push it. With a mid-week Copa del Rey match against Granada, Messi will have one more chance to get minutes ahead of next Saturday’s visit to the Vicente Calderón. This week, however, Barça would need somebody else to step up, with the returns of Xavi Hernández and Víctor Valdés balancing the continued absence of the team’s biggest star.

source: AP
Alexis Sanchez, after combining for 19 league goals in his first seasons with Barcelona, has already scored 11 times in La Liga’s first 18 rounds. (Photo: AP.)

But just as they did when Pedro Rodríguez went off on Dec. 22, Barcelona got a hat trick from part of its talented if overshadowed supporting cast. Scoring his ninth, 10th, and 11th goals of the season (tying him with Pedro for the team lead), Alexis Sánchez led Barcelona to a 4-0 win over visiting Elche, keeping the Blaugrana first ahead of next week’s showdown in Madrid.

For Sánchez, the performance continues the resurgence he’s experienced under head coach Gerardo Martino, one that’s seen the former Udinese man start to match assumptions that came with his $37 million transfer three years ago. In his first two years, however, Sánchez had only scored 19 league goals, and while that was only one less than the 20 he’d scored in three seasons in Italy, the now-25-year-old was expected to put up bigger numbers in Barcelona’s attack.

As Barça started to morph during its final season under Pep Guardiola, Sánchez’s role in the team became less certain, with a team build around Lionel Messi not having a clear role for the natural winger. At first, he was used as an along-the-line striker, but slowly Barcelona’s ditched that position, allowing Messi to float as a false nine. While on the surface that augers well for somebody whose best role is wide-to-in, Sánchez entered his third year in Catalonia having failed to live up to the hype that carried him to Spain.

Two years later, however, Martino has a more clearly defined step up. When everybody’s healthy, Messi (through the middle) and Neymar (on the left) are givens. The spot on the right, however, is open to competition.

In theory, that means Sánchez and Pedro are competing for a spot. In practice, both players have seen enough time. In 23 combined starts, the duo has scored 22 times. Even by Messi and Neymar’s standards (14 goals in 22 games), that’s stellar production.

Griezmann, Sociedad surge lands La Real on the cusp of fourth

That they finished fourth in May means we should only be so surprised that Real Sociedad find themselves in contention another Champions League spot, but after the struggles Jagoba Arrasate’s team experienced at the start of the season, 2012-13 was increasingly looking like a fairy tale. Winning only once in their first eight league games this season, La Real  were struggling to replicate the success experienced under Philippe Montanier, the French head coach who left for Rennes this summer. Add in an early injury to striker Imanol Agirretxe and some general regression and Real Sociedad looked unlikely to get back to fourth.

source: Getty Images
Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann sits third in La Liga with 12 goals after scoring Sunday against Athletic Bilbao. (Photo: Getty Images.)

After today’s 2-0 win against visiting Athletic Bilbao, however, Arrasate’s team has won five in a row, their only league loss since Oct. 5 coming at the Santiago Bernabeu. Thanks to goals from Antoine Griezmann and Rubén Pardo, Sociedad took full points from the team currently sitting fourth, pulling them within one point of Athletic in the process.

But as remarkable as La Real’s surge has been, Griezmann’s form has been equally stellar. Coming off a season in which the now-22-year-old scored 10 times in league (reaching double-digit goals for the first time), the French-born winger has already netted 12 times this season, the highest non-Diego Costa, non-Cristiano Ronaldo total in Spain. With five goals in six games, the France U-level winger is pushing for a place in Didier Deschamps’ squad for Brazil, even though (thanks in part to a suspension) he’s yet to make a senior-level appearance for Les Bleus.

Carlos Vela’s emergence in San Sebastián has garnered most of the headlines (particularly in this part of the world), but two years younger than his Mexican teammate, Griezmann is the bigger emerging star. Regardless, with their French attacker having found another level, Sociedad are ready to reclaim their Champions League spot, leaving their slow star in fall’s fading distance.

Elsewhere

  • Málaga 0, Atlético Madrid 1 – Koké’s 70th minute goal took full points for Diego Simeone’s team, who ended their hosts’ three-match unbeaten run. Atlético’s +36 goal difference, however, keeps them second behind Barcelona.
  • Valladolid 0, Real Betis 0 – Valladolid move even with 17th place Celta Vigo while failing to claim full points from the league’s last place squad.
  • Valencia 2, Levante 0 – Head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s first game with Los Che saw fellow Argentine Pablo Piatti score the opener just before halftime, with Sofiane Feghouli’s second of the season sealing victory for Valencia.
  • Almeria 3, Granada 0 – The home side moves three points clear of relegation with goals from Sebastián Dubarbier, Verza, and Aleix Vidal. Granada suffers its fourth loss in five.
  • Sevilla 3, Getafe 0 – Ivan Rakitic notched his eighth goal of the season as Unai Emery’s side post moves into sixth place, the team unbeaten in league since Nov. 2.
  • Osasuna 1, Espanyol 0 – Álvaro Cejundo’s 33rd minute goal holds up as the hosts run their unbeaten streak to three.

Others
Barcelona 4, Elche 0
Real Sociedad 2, Athletic Bilbao 0

Monday
Real Madrid vs. Celta Vigo
Rayo Vallecano vs. Villarreal

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 18 16 1 1 53 12 41 9-0-0 7-1-1 49
Atlético Madrid 18 16 1 1 47 11 36 9-0-0 7-1-1 49
Real Madrid 17 13 2 2 49 21 28 7-0-1 6-2-1 41
Athletic 18 10 3 5 26 23 3 7-2-0 3-1-5 33
Real Sociedad 18 9 5 4 35 23 12 6-2-1 3-3-3 32
Sevilla 18 8 5 5 35 29 6 5-2-2 3-3-3 29
Villarreal 17 8 4 5 27 18 9 4-3-2 4-1-3 28
Valencia 18 7 2 9 25 29 -4 5-1-4 2-1-5 23
Getafe 18 7 2 9 20 30 -10 4-2-3 3-0-6 23
Espanyol 18 6 4 8 22 24 -2 4-2-3 2-2-5 22
Málaga 18 5 5 8 19 23 -4 4-0-5 1-5-3 20
Levante 18 5 5 8 17 27 -10 2-3-3 3-2-5 20
Granada 18 6 2 10 15 25 -10 2-0-7 4-2-3 20
Almería 18 5 4 9 20 32 -12 2-3-4 3-1-5 19
Osasuna 18 5 3 10 15 28 -13 3-2-4 2-1-6 18
Elche 18 4 5 9 16 27 -11 2-2-5 2-3-4 17
Celta Vigo 17 4 4 9 21 27 -6 1-4-4 3-0-5 16
Valladolid 18 3 7 8 21 29 -8 2-4-3 1-3-5 16
Rayo Vallecano 17 4 1 12 16 40 -24 2-0-6 2-1-6 13
Betis 18 2 5 11 15 36 -21 2-3-4 0-2-7 11

Watch Live: Leicester City vs. Liverpool

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 27:  A person selling club merchandise outside the stadium wears a mask of former Leicester City Manager Claudio Ranieri prior to the Premier League match between Leicester City and Liverpool at The King Power Stadium on February 27, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Leicester City welcome Liverpool to the King Power Stadium on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Foxes begin life without Claudio Ranieri.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Craig Shakespeare is in caretaker charge of Leicester as they’ve lost five games on the spin in the Premier League and now find themselves in the relegation zone. The last thing they would is a Liverpool side fresh after two weeks without a game.

Jurgen Klopp‘s men smell blood in the water as they’ve already ripped Leicester apart once this season, beating the reigning champions 4-1 at Anfield back in September.

In team news Leicester start with Okazaki and Vardy up top in what looks like a straight-up 4-4-2 formation, while Liverpool bring in Emre Can for the injured Jordan Henderson and Lucas starts at center back with Dejan Lovren out.

LINEUPS

Leicester City: Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Drinkwater, Ndidi, Mahrez, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy. Subs: Zieler; Chilwell, Gray, Amarety, King, Ulloa, Slimani

Liverpool: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lucas, Milner; Can, Wijnaldum; Lallana, Coutinho, Mane, Firmino. Subs: Karius, Alexander, Klavan, Stewart, Moreno, Origi, Woodburn,

Togo striker Kone saves opposing goalkeeper in Czech league

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PRAGUE (AP) For the fourth time in his career, striker Francis Kone rushed to the rescue on the soccer field to help save someone’s life.

The Togo international jumped into action on Saturday when the opposing goalkeeper in a Czech league match was lying motionless after a collision with a teammate.

Kone, who plays for Czech club Slovacko, reacted quickly and was able to stop Bohemians goalkeeper Martin Borkovec from swallowing his tongue, allowing him to breathe freely. The incident happened in the 29th minute after Borkovec collided with teammate Daniel Krch.

After the match, Kone revealed it was the fourth time he had been able to help in such circumstances following two incidents in Africa and one in Thailand.

Borkovec thanked Kone on Facebook “for his quick action in saving me.”

The league called Kone the “hero” of the match.

Premier League Playback: Ranking the chance of relegation

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With 12 games to go in the Premier League season, the bottom seven teams are starting to get cut off from the rest of the league.

Just like at the top of the table, this is the “business end” of the campaign and strange things start to happen.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Team who looked dead and buried start to rise (see: Hull and Swansea, already) and others start to sink from midtable and towards the abyss with Bournemouth and particularly Leicester City struggling.

[ MORE: Premier League standings | Schedule

Below is a look at the seven main contenders for the three relegation spots, focusing on the toughest games they have remaining, their reasons for optimism and a percentage chance of relegation.

[ MORE: Full PL Playback archive ]

Even if you have points on the board right now, momentum means everything at this time of the season…


Bournemouth

Points: 26
Reason for optimism: The quality Eddie Howe‘s side possess on the ball will see them create chances, so there’s that. However, they have to score two or three goals a game recently to get a win. They have four of the the current top six coming up, then finish the season with four of their last five games against relegation rivals. That will test the nerve of this talented yet inexperienced team.
Toughest games remaining: at Man United (Mar. 4), at Liverpool (Apr. 5), vs. Chelsea (Apr. 8), at Tottenham (Apr. 15)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Swansea City

Points: 24
Reason for optimism: Things are looking much more solid in defense since Paul Clement arrived. Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente continue to score and assist, plus the Swans look dangerous on the break. Plenty of reasons to believe they’ll continue to pull away from the bottom three. Will complacency set in though? Swans next four games are against Burnley, Hull, Bournemouth and Boro. Huge few weeks ahead and then an easier finish to the season, on paper.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Tottenham (Apr. 4), at Man United (Apr. 29), vs. Everton (May 6)
Relegation percentage: 20%

Middlesbrough
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: They’ve got the fifth defensive record in the PL, so they can hang in there. That’s a good trait to have when the pressure is on. They just need a goalscorer to pop up with the goods. A run of three games against relegation rivals at the beginning of April is likely to decide their fate with four very tough games to finish the season.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man United (Mar. 19), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 15), vs. Man City (Apr. 29), at Chelsea (May 6), at Liverpool (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Crystal Palace
Points: 22
Reason for optimism: Big Sam has never been relegated as a Premier League manager. Simple. That said, this task is tougher than he thought. The 1-0 win against Boro proved they can grind out a victory when they need to. Still, they have five of the current top six left to play in their final 12 games of the season. It will be a flip of the coin for the Eagles.
Toughest games remaining: At Chelsea (Apr. 1), vs. Arsenal (Apr. 8), at Liverpool (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 6), at Man United (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 50%

Leicester City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Scrapping the barrel here… Their incredible runs to safety in 2015 and then for the PL title in 2016 (that did happen, right!?) gives them experience in high-pressure situation. One big marquee win can help get momentum going again, either in the PL or by getting past Sevilla in the return leg. Claudio Ranieri‘s sacking could give the Foxes the jolt they badly need but it must happen soon.
Toughest games remaining: vs. Liverpool (Feb. 27), at Everton (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (Apr. 22), at Man City (May 13),
Relegation percentage: 50%

Hull City

Points: 21
Reason for optimism: Marco Silva’s side are much improved and have just two games remaining against the big boys. So many relegation scraps coming up. They look tough to break down and dangerous on the break. That’s a great combo at this point in the season. They have momentum among the teams at the bottom.
Toughest games remaining: at Everton (Mar. 18), at Man City (Apr. 8), vs. Tottenham (May 21),
Relegation percentage: 30%

Sunderland

Points: 19
Reason for optimism: Well, just look at pretty much the last four seasons. Down and out time and time again, somehow Sunderland survive. That’s the only reason for optimism. Oh, and Jermain Defoe‘s goals. David Moyes needs a miracle, especially what those remaining games…
Toughest games remaining: vs. Man City (Mar. 5), vs. Man United (Apr. 8), at Arsenal (Apr. 22), at Chelsea (May 21)
Relegation percentage: 70%


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

VIDEO: Remembering Jamie Vardy’s magic vs. Liverpool

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Just over 12 months ago Leicester City beat Liverpool on a raucous evening at the King Power Stadium to ignite real belief into their Premier League title charge.

We all know how that turned out…

[ PREVIEW: Leicester host Liverpool

A year on and boy, Leicester could use some magic from Vardy as they host Liverpool on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The Foxes fired Claudio Ranieri last Thursday and the reigning champions have slipped into the relegation zone over the weekend as they’re in freefall with five defeats on the spin and they’ve failed to score in their last six PL games.

Click play on the video above to see Vardy’s wonderful volley from distance as the England international was in full flow on his way to 24 goals for the season. He has just five in the PL this season, three of which came in the 4-2 win against Manchester City at the KP back in December.

Again, caretaker Craig Shakespeare needs some magic from somewhere on Monday if the Foxes are going to gain momentum in their battle against relegation.