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

MLS roundup: FCD win battle of unbeatens; POR rebound vs. VAN

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With seven MLS Saturday afternoons/evenings officially in the books, only 27 more to go…

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FC Dallas 1-0 Sporting Kansas City

The only two remaining unbeaten teams faced off in Frisco on Saturday, and only one came out still unblemished. FCD dominated in the two most important facets of the game — chances created, and goals.

Maynor Figueroa scored the game’s only goal, a 77th-minute header to put home Michael Barrios’ floated cross toward the back post. If not for the (increasingly typical) heroics of Sporting KC goalkeeper Tim Melia (five saves), FCD would have already been 3-0 or 4-0 in front by that point. Sporting’s only shot on target didn’t arrive until the 47th minute, and it was far from a clear-cut chance, as Jimmy Medranda fired from the corner of the 18-yard box and hardly tested Jesse Gonzalez with the effort.

The win sees FCD move to six games unbeaten to start the season (three wins, three draws), while Sporting suffer their first defeat in seven games.


Portland Timbers 2-1 Vancouver Whitecaps

Darlington Nagbe and Darren Mattocks bagged goals for Portland, who wasted little time in bouncing back from last weekend’s home defeat to Sporting. Nagbe’s goal, a stunner from outside the penalty area (WATCH HERE) opened the scoring in the 18th minute, and Mattocks made it 2-0 five minutes before halftime.

Fredy Montero scored his third goal in two games to bring Vancouver back to 2-1 just before the hour mark, but that’s as close as the visitors would get.

Diego Valeri was carried off the field in the 80th minute, which is the worst scare that Timbers fans could have possibly imagined, though the Argentine superstar told reporters after the game that he was feeling much better.


Real Salt Lake 1-3 Atlanta United

The honeymoon period is over for Mike Petke who, after back-to-back wins to open his tenure as RSL head coach, suffered his first defeat since taking over for Jeff Cassar five games into the season.

A series of comedic errors doomed RSL just about from the start, as Hector Villalba (9th minute) and Yamil Asad (46th), two of Atlanta’s South American starlets, put the visitors 2-0 ahead a minute into the first half — the latter was set up by Miguel Almiron, another of the young, South American attackers at Gerardo Martino’s disposal. Albert Rusnak pulled RSL back to 2-1 in the 69th minute, but it would remain that way until second-half stoppage time, when Brandon Vazquez beat Nick Rimando for a 3-1 clincher.


New York Red Bulls 2-0 Columbus Crew SC

Columbus’s defeat away to New York went from bad, to worse, to worst, in 39 minutes’ time on Saturday. Midfield revelation Artur went off with a nasty arm injury in the 6th minute, Alex Muyl put the home side 1-0 up in the 11th minute Daniel Royer made it 2-0 from the penalty spot in the 38th minute, and defensive revelation (and rookie) Alex Crognale went off injured immediately thereafter.


Houston Dynamo 2-0 San Jose Earthquakes

Wilmer Cabrera’s side will live and die by the form of his young attacking quartet this season. On Saturday, Erick Torres and Alberth Elis delivered the goals (read: goals) as Houston picked up a rather comfortable him win over San Jose.

Torres opened the scoring in the 9th minute, and though Elis didn’t double the advantage for another 63 minutes, the result was rarely, if ever, in doubt. San Jose managed just two shots on target (Houston had just three, for what it’s worth), as Adolfo Machado, Tyler Deric and Co. kept their first clean sheet of the season.


New England Revolution 2-2 D.C. United

In a battle of bottom-half Eastern Conference sides, New England and D.C. drew 2-2 after Lee Nguyen and a Sean Franklin own goal stalemated tallies from Jared Jeffrey and Sebastien Le Toux.

Ligue 1: Cavani, Di Maria score as PSG win to leapfrog Monaco

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PARIS (AP) Striker Edinson Cavani scored his 44th goal of the season and created the second goal as Paris Saint-Germain beat Montpellier 2-0 to go top of the French league on Saturday.

Cavani thumped home a cross from midfielder Blaise Matuidi in the first half, with winger Angel Di Maria involved in the buildup. It took Cavani’s career-best tally to 31 league goals and he thought he had another later in the half, but his powerful header was ruled out for offside.

Three minutes after the break, Cavani back-heeled to Di Maria, who curled in from just outside the penalty area for his fifth goal in five games.

Defending champion PSG is three points ahead of Monaco, which has led for most of the season.

Monaco has played two games less and can return to the top on goal difference by winning at Lyon on Sunday.

Both sides are doing well in Europe.

Monaco reached the Champions League semifinals and Lyon got through to the last four of the Europa League this week.

PSG has won eight straight games in all competitions to keep the pressure on Monaco. They meet each other on Wednesday in the French Cup semifinals. PSG then faces a tough away trip at third-place Nice next weekend as the hard-fought title race heats up.

“Monaco’s had a great season and you have to congratulate them,” PSG left back Maxwell said. “But we’re still in it.”

Bordeaux beat last-place Bastia 2-0 at home to move up to fourth spot, with striker Malcom getting the first goal.

But Lyon needs only a draw at home to Monaco to regain fourth spot.

After struggling for most of the season, Lorient is suddenly playing like a team near the top.

The Brittany-based side moved out of the relegation zone and up to 16th place after thrashing Metz 5-1 at home for a fourth win in five games. Midfielder Jimmy Cabot scored two and striker Benjamin Moukandjo grabbed his 13th goal of the season.

Elsewhere, striker Yacine Bammou scored both as Nantes beat struggling Caen 2-0.

Two goals from center forward Lois Diony helped Dijon beat Angers 3-2 at home; while Nicolas De Preville scored a brace as Lille beat Guingamp 3-0.

In Sunday’s other matches, Nice is away to Toulouse and Saint-Etienne hosts Rennes.

La Liga: Griezmann scores no. 25 in Atleti’s win to stay 3rd

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann kept Atletico Madrid focused on a strong finish to the Spanish league on Saturday despite its looming Champions League semifinal with Real Madrid.

Griezmann struck late in the second half at Espanyol to earn a 1-0 victory that kept Atletico in third place, three points ahead of Sevilla, and on course for a return to Europe’s top competition next season.

Atletico moved within four points of second-place Barcelona, which visits leader Real on Sunday trailing the pace-setter by three points. Real also has a game in hand as it tries to win the domestic title for the first time since 2012.

On Friday, Atletico and Real were drawn to face each other for a third time in four seasons in the Champions League. Real won the other two meetings in the finals of 2014 and 2016.

While Atletico has two league matches against Villarreal and at Las Palmas over the next week, its hopes for silverware rest squarely on their European clash with Madrid beginning on May 2 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

“2017 is shaping up better than 2016,” Atletico manager Diego Simeone said. “We are defending well and finding the moments to win games. I am sure we could perhaps play better, but the team is winning. There is still a ways to go before the semifinals.”

At Espanyol, Simeone made only one change in his starting 11 from the team that drew at Leicester on Tuesday to advance in the Champions League on a 2-1 aggregate score.

His side, however, showed little signs of weariness against an Espanyol that won four straight at home.

Griezmann decided the contest in Barcelona dominated by both defenses in the 73rd minute when he used one touch of his left boot to volley home a rebound of a strike by Saul Niguez that came off a defender.

The goal was his team-leading 16th in the league and 25th overall.

“We knew we would have a difficult time against a team that is so good at home,” Griezmann said. “But we tried until the end and then held on.”

Cedric Bakambu scored twice, including the stoppage-time winner apparently with his hand, to ensure Villarreal strengthened its hold on fifth place and a Europa League berth.

Villarreal created several scoring opporunities but needed Bakambu to slot home the opener in the 68th.

Leganes was close to grabbing a late draw when Miguel Guerrero struck in the 90th, but Bakambu appeared to use his hand to redirect Jonathan Dos Santos’ cross into the net two minutes later.

The result left Leganes winless in seven matches and clinging to the final spot above the relegation zone.

“He scored with his hand,” Leganes goalkeeper Iago Herrerin said. “We are fighting for our lives. It was impossible not to see it.”

Villarreal coach Fran Escriba acknowledged Bakambu “touched the ball with his hand” after watching replays, but “I didn’t see it live.”

Sandro Ramirez continued his good scoring form, ensuring a third win in four rounds to dispel any relegation fears for Malaga. The former Barcelona forward has scored in all three of those victories.

Ramirez blasted in his own rebound from a free kick just minutes after Jose “Recio” Garcia headed the hosts in front in the 36th.

Before he scored, Ramirez’s powerful free kick struck Valencia’s Ezequiel Garay in the head, leaving him visibly groggy as he remained on the turf. The defender underwent tests at a hospital that indicated mild head trauma. He was released from the hospital soon after the tests.

Last-place Osasuna couldn’t have done much more to crush its fans’ spirits than go up by two goals only to concede twice in the final 11 minutes.

The draw left Sporting also in the drop zone at four points from Leganes and safety with five rounds left.

Serie A: Fiorentina, Inter Milan thrill in 9-goal instant classic

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan lost at Fiorentina 5-4 in one of the most incredible Serie A matches of the season on Saturday and left its European hopes hanging by a thread.

Inter led 2-1 at halftime, Fiorentina led 5-2 after 79 minutes, Inter scored its fourth in stoppage time and watched its equalizer attempt cleared off the goal-line.

Just over a month ago, Inter was hoping to sneak into the Champions League after a 7-1 victory over Atalanta but two points from five matches has seen it slip to seventh, two points behind AC Milan, which occupies the last qualifying position for the Europa League.

Milan hosts Empoli on Sunday.

“We have to understand why what happened happened,” Inter coach Stefano Pioli said. “What we saw in the second half can’t be my team … we played for only 45 minutes. Then there was an inexplicable blackout.

“Since the Atalanta match we haven’t had the right mental attitude. We are Inter and we can’t play like this. We’ve reached the bottom. … We can’t throw away matches like we did in the second half today. Unfortunately this month we’ve thrown away everything we built.”

Fiorentina, which also missed a penalty, moved to within one point of Inter, which hosts third-placed Napoli next weekend.

Matias Vecino broke the deadlock for Fiorentina early but Inter appeared to swiftly turn the match around with two goals in five minutes.

First, Ivan Perisic slotted home Antonio Candreva’s low cross, then Mauro Icardi fired Joao Mario’s through ball across into the bottom left corner.

Fiorentina should have equalized after halftime when it was awarded a soft penalty after Danilo D’Ambrosio was adjudged to have pulled back Khouma Babacar, but Federico Bernardeschi’s weak spot kick saved by Samir Handanovic.

Davide Astori headed in the equalizer shortly after the hour mark, and Vecino again gave Fiorentina the lead two minutes later with his second of the match.

Babacar appeared to seal matters for Fiorentina with two strikes into the bottom right corner in the 70th and 79th minutes to make it 5-2.

But Inter wasn’t finished.

Icardi controlled Perisic’s pass in the area and fired in off the post two minutes from time, and headed in a corner in stoppage time to complete a hat trick.

Inter threw everyone forward and almost leveled from another corner which came out to Marcelo Brozovic, whose effort was cleared off the line by Astori.