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.

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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

Chile 1-1 Australia: Chile moves on despite Aussie show

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Australia looked the better side for good stretches of the match, and while it wasn’t enough to earn a semifinal place, the Asian champions will go home with a hard-earned point against a top South American team in Moscow. Had it not been for a pair of ugly misses in front of net, the Australians may have had a chance to advance. Alas, an equalizer by Martin Rodriguez was enough to cancel out Massimo Luongo‘s opener and send Chile through.

With Chile holding all the meaningful possession through the first half-hour, their best chance came in the 27th minute. Alexis Sanchez controlled a long ball from Eugenio Mena and was free on goal. While trying to settle and shoot, he was dispossessed from behind by Mark Milligan who recovered brilliantly. Sanchez went to ground, and after no initial call, VAR took a look and determined there was no reason to award Chile a penalty.

[ MORE: Germany eases by Cameroon 3-1 ]

Australia refused to be intimidated by their opponents’ stature. In the 36th minute, James Troisi lofted a brilliant ball for Luongo who had made a scything run into the box. Luongo slid to redirect the ball on net, only stopped by a charging Claudio Bravo.

That was a harbinger of what would come six minutes later. A shot by Robbie Kruse from just inside the top of the box clipped off a defender as he let loose, and the deflection sent the ball straight to Troisi who was free at the far post. With Bravo closing, the Melbourne Victory attacker looped the ball over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net for a shock lead.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

The game opened up from there, and both sides had a chance on net before halftime. Arturo Vidal headed from close range, but it was blocked by a defender out for a corner. Down the other end, somehow three Australia attackers worked free on a failed offside trap, but Trent Sainsbury embarrassingly skied it well over the bar with nobody there to challenge.

After the break, it was more of the same as Australia proved dangerous, forcing Bravo into a number of saves. However, it would be Chile to score next and level the score. Past the half-hour mark, Australia failed to clear, and Eduardo Vargas headed back in front of net where Rodriguez was there to touch it in. Chile nearly took the lead moments later, but Vargas headed just wide after great work by Sanchez.

Australia had another golden opportunity to take back the lead, but when Troisi’s pinpoint ball to the far post found substitute Jamie Maclaren, the Brisbane Roar striker flubbed the huge chance, scuffing his first-time attempt, sending the ball skittering well wide. Chile’s point saw them through into the semifinals, where they take on Portugal. Australia’s two points were not enough to keep them in contention.

Germany 3-1 Cameroon: Germany cruises to Group B win

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The favorites in Group B completed the task as they topped 10-man Cameroon 3-1 in Sochi behind strikes from first-time international goalscorers Kerim Demirbay and Timo Werner.

Germany had a few decent opportunities early, but the best came on 20 minutes as Emre Can opened a bit of space to his right and ripped off a shot from outside the top of the box that skittered just wide.

[ MORE: Bright Australia performance earns 1-1 draw with Chile ]

The favorites held much of the meaningful possession, but had few truly solid chances. Cameroon was pesky down the other end, with a chance for Christian Bassogog that slipped away after a poor touch, and a dangerous free-kick from the left that somehow evaded all attackers in the box.

They had the best chance of the first half just before the whistle as a cross from Ernst Mabouka was misjudged by Josh Kimmich and fell to Andre Zambo Anguissa who hit it on one hop in an effort to chip Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but the German goalkeeper produced an acrobatic tip over the bar.

Straight out of the break, Germany took the lead on the moment they were waiting for and doomed Cameroon to a trip home. Julian Draxler fed Kerim Demirbay with a sumptuous bit of skill, and as nobody closed down the Hoffenheim attacker, he let loose an absolutely vicious strike that found the top corner for a 1-0 lead and his first international goal.

[ MORE: Latest 2017 Confederations Cup news

Die Mannschaft nearly had a second minutes later as Timo Werner was clean through, but his poke was clipped by goalkeeper Joseph Ondoa and Kimmich’s follow-up was also saved as Ondoa recovered.

Things would get worse for Cameroon as Mabouka was sent off for a high boot foul on Emre Can. Initially the referee showed Mabouka a yellow card, but after a review changed the decision to a straight red. Immediately after going a man up, Germany bagged their second as Kimmich crossed into the box for Werner who was wide open and opted to use his head for his first international goal and a 2-0 lead.

Cameroon earned a consolation in the 78th minute as ter Stegen failed to aggressively take a cross by substitute Nicolas Ngamelu, and Vincent Aboubakar attacked it instead, glancing a header off the goalkeeper’s hands and into the back of the net for an own-goal.

Werner got his second with 9 minutes left on a cut-back from Benjamin Henrichs, and that put things to bed. The three points sent Germany to the summit of Group B, enough to top Chile after their draw with Australia. The Germans will take on Mexico in Sochi in the semifinals.

Reports say Monaco offers Mbappe huge contract

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Kylian Mbappe is one of the hottest transfer targets in recent memory, if not ever.

And yet, there’s now significant noise that he could actually stay at his current club, despite world record offers and massive contracts on the table.

According to a report in French tabloid Le Journal du Dimanche, AS Monaco has offered the 18-year-old star a huge new contract in the hopes they can keep him at least another year.

The report says the offer on the table from Monaco features a $181,000 per week salary, which translates to about $9 million a year. That would leave Mbappe even with strike partner Falcao’s earnings.

Staying with Monaco would clearly net Mbappe an immediate pay raise and keep him at a club that clearly values his minutes on the pitch. However, there’s still a serious drawback. With the club having sold a number of other assets vital to their Champions League semifinal run such as Bernardo Silva plus others like Benjamin Mendy, Thomas Lemar, and Tiemoue Bakayoko soon to leave, it’s unlikely the club can repeat its success of last year that saw Mbappe leap onto the world stage.

It’s also possible that reports of a new contract offer were leaked to give interested clubs a sense of urgency and potentially drive up Mbappe’s price. Reports all over Europe suggest that Real Madrid has already seen a world record $145 million offer rejected, and Monaco could be playing for more. With Arsenal also reportedly in the mix, the sharks circling could be alerted by this leak.

Watch Live: Chile vs. Australia, Germany vs. Cameroon

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Now that two of the four semifinal spots are secured from Group A, it’s Group B’s turn to send two of its four on to the knockout round. Chile takes on Australia in Moscow, while Germany battles Cameroon in Sochi at 11 a.m. ET live on Telemundo Deportes.

Chile and Germany are in the driver’s seat in the group, each with four points to Australia and Cameroon’s one. That means a draw or win for either favorite will see them through. However, there are no teams yet eliminated, and anyone can make a move with an upset.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chile vs. Australia live on Telemundo Deportes ]

To advance, both underdogs would need not only the three points, but also enough goals to overcome their goal difference disadvantage. Australia’s -1 goal differential sees them two behind Germany and three back of Chile, while Cameroon sits at -2. Therefore, each team would need a win by at least two goals to have a shot at moving on.

For Chile, Claudio Bravo is back between the sticks after missing the first two games with an injury. Alexis Sanchez leads the front line with Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal holding down the fort in the center of the pitch. Gary Medel is rested after coming off injured in the 74th minute of Chile’s draw with Germany, while Jean Beausejour is also moved to the bench after playing the full 90 minutes in the competition’s first two games.

[ WATCH LIVE: Germany vs. Cameroon live on Telemundo Deportes ]

Germany sports another young lineup, highlighted by Hoffenheim attacker Kerem Demerbay’s first competitive start for his country in his second-ever cap. Marc-Andre ter Stegen mans the sticks for the second straight match in favor of Bernd Leno, both of whom have looked shaky in this tournament. Bayern Munich youngster Josh Kimmich has gone the full 90 minutes (or more) in 16 straight matches for Germany and again gets the start.

LINEUPS

Chile: Bravo, Jara, Diaz, Mena, Isla, Silva, Aranguiz, Fuenzalida, Vidal, Sanchez, Vargas.

Australia: Ryan, Sainsbury, Troisi, McGowan, Milligan, Luongo, Eraltay, Irvine, Juric, Cahill, Kruse.


Germany: Ter Stegen, Plattenhardt, Sule, Ginter, Can, Rudy, Rudiger, Kimmich, Werner, Draxler, Demirbay.

Cameroon: Ondoa, Teikeu, Ngadeu-Ngadjui, Fai, Mabouka, Siani, Anguissa, Mandjeck, Aboubakar, Moukandjo, Bassogog.