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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.

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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

Watch Live: West Bromwich Albion vs. Middlesbrough (Lineups, Live Stream)

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: The West Brom crest is seen prior to the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough at The Hawthorns on August 28, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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West Bromwich Albion searches for its second win this season on Sunday when they take on Middlesbrough at 8:30 a.m. E.T. from The Hawthorns on CNBC or live online at NBCSports.com.

The Boro holds a narrow advantage in all-time meetings, with four wins out of eight, and Aitor Karanka‘s side certainly have the capabilities to pull off another victory against West Brom following a solid summer in the transfer window.

WATCH LIVE: West Bromwich Albion vs. Middlesbrough live online

Karanka’s men remain unbeaten through two matches, including last weekend’s narrow 2-1 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

West Brom remains largely intact with its starting XI as Salomon Rondon gets the start up front for the Baggies. Tony Pulis‘ side has plenty of options off the bench as well, including Saido Berahino and Craig Gardner to provide a spark.

For Middlesbrough, U.S. international Brad Guzan will get the start in goal for the first time this season, as Victor Valdes remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. Alvaro Negredo looks to continue his fine start to the season after notching a goal and two assists in his first two matches.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion – Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Galloway; Phillips, Yacob, Fletcher (c), Field, McClean; Rondon.
Bench – Rose; Olsson, Gardner, Lambert, Berahino, Leko, Wilson

Middlesbrough – Guzan, Nsue, Ayala, Gibson, Barragan, Forshaw, Clayton, Stuani, Ramirez, Downing, Negredo.
Bench – 
Dimi, Bernardo, Rhodes, Reach, Fischer, De Sart, Nugent.

PL Sunday Preview: Man City hosts Hammers, Boro visits West Brom

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka looks on during the Premier League match between Sunderland FC and Middlesbrough FC at Stadium of Light on August 21, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
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These four clubs have a combined two losses so far in Premier League competition. Unfortunately for Middlesbrough and West Ham, outside league play was not so kind over the past four days.

Those two clubs were both ousted from cup competitions by inferior clubs, and must regroup to maintain their unbeaten league status on the road.

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West Brom vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

A Sunday morning road trip for Middlesbrough was good to them last weekend, so why not again? Boro remains unbeaten in the league, having dispatched Sunderland last time out for their first win of the season, but Aitor Karanka will need to put a midweek loss to Fulham in the League Cup in the rear-view mirror.

[ MORE: Late Rashford strike lifts Manchester United ]

It’s been a mixed bag for West Brom thus far, with the high of their opening day win over Crystal Palace erased with a home Premier League loss to Everton and an even more disappointing result against League One minnows Northampton in the League Cup. Tony Pulis and the rest of the West Brom executives are under fire for not improving the squad with just days left in the transfer window.

INJURIES: West Brom OUT: Chris Brunt (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Brendan Galloway (hamstring), Jonny Evans (hip). | Middlesbrough OUT: Victor Valdes (hamstring), Marten De Roon (hamstring), George Friend (calf), Fabio (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Ayala (fitness), Bernardo Espinosa (fitness).

Manchester City vs. West Ham United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Like Middlesbrough, West Ham is in good league form, but their midweek result in another competition will place a damper on this weekend’s events. The Hammers were ousted from the Europa League before the group stage for the second season in a row, falling to Romanian champions Astra Girugiu…for the second season in a row.

Last year, Slaven Bilic turned things around in three days, beating Arsenal at the Emirates just after Europa League elimination. This year, the road test is just as difficult, and with injuries to a number of key attackers, the Hammers will need to dig deep to turn things around.

[ MORE: Petr Cech says Arsenal is aiming for Premier League title ]

Manchester City fell to West Ham at home last season, and Pep Guardiola will be sure to make them remember. Willy Caballero is likely to continue in goal with Claudio Bravo having just arrived, and while it seems Manchester City has yet to be seriously tested in league play, the Argentinian and his back line have yet to keep a clean sheet.

INJURIES: Manchester City  OUT: Ilkay Gundogan (knee), Vincent Kompany (thigh), Claudio Bravo (preparation). QUESTIONABLE: Leroy Sane (fitness). West Ham  OUT: Sofiane Feghouli (hamstring), Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (), Cresswell (knee), Henry (knee) QUESTIONABLE: Dimitri Payet (fitness), Manuel Lanzini (fitness), Havard Nordtveit (foot), Mark Noble (wrist).

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 0-1 Montreal Impact

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 12:  Ignacio Piatti #10 of the Montreal Impact controls the ball during the MLS game against the New York Red Bulls at the Olympic Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Impact defeated the New York Red Bulls 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): A passionate but sloppy rivalry match saw Toronto stunned by 10-man Montreal at BMO Field. The Impact held strong against a toothless Toronto 2nd-half push, and they pinged a goal against the run of play inside the final 20 minutes to end Toronto’s seven-match unbeaten run. With Montreal’s Callum Mallace seeing red just before halftime, the hosts had little to offer Evan Bush’s goal, and Ignacio Piatti worked a goal out of nothing to earn the Impact three points. At least Toronto had a cool tifo:

Three moments that mattered:

44′ – A spotty first half came boiling over just before the break when Marco Delgado clipped Dominic Osorio on a breakaway. Steven Beitashour came trotting back towards the incident and was decked by Callum Mallace. A brawl developed and after the scuffle, Mallace was sent off. While the extra-curricular activity definitely warranted punishment, it’s controversial to conclude that Mallace’s actions warranted a straight red card.

65′ – Toronto poured pressure forward, and looked to the referee twice, who was unmoved. First Sebastian Giovinco went down under a clip from Laurent Ciman, who appeared to stick his leg out behind him and trip the Italian. Then, Jozy Altidore went to ground on a body check from Hassoun Camara, but again the referee shook his head. The US international looked to have toppled to the floor easily under pressure from . This double moment was pivotal in the match anyways, but became even more significant after Seba came off limping heavily, holding his inner thigh, substituted for Tsubasa Endoh.

73′ – Out of nothing, Montreal had a stunning lead. Evan Bush booted a goal kick to midfield, and the ball falls to Oduro who works hard to divert play to Piatti on the left edge of the box. The 31-year-old collected with a few expert touches, then suddenly one-on-one with Steven Bieteshour, Piatti deposited his 14th goal of the season inside the far post, leaving Alex Bono no chance.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Piatti 73′

MLS Snapshot: Philadelphia Union 2-0 Sporting KC

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Fabinho #33 of the Philadelphia Union controls the ball against the Columbus Crew SC on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words or lessPhiladelphia wasted an energetic start to the match, but the hosts found themselves with a man advantage shortly into the second half, and they’d take advantage, winning 1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium behind a goal from Roland Alberg, who had entered the field just two minutes before scoring. The Union were overall the better side, but the hosts weren’t without chances of their own, most notably watching Dom Dwyer miss moments before Alberg’s goal. It was all over for KC when Roger Espinoza was also sent off for a second yellow late in the match, seeing Philly bag a second with ticks on the clock.

Three moments that mattered

17′ – A whopping four missed chances plagued the otherwise positive start for the home side. First, Tranquillo Barnetta curled in a gorgeous effort that was acrobatically parried away by a leaping Alec Kann. Then, in the 11th and 14th minutes, a pair of low crosses from Fabinho along the face of goal fell just out of reach of a sliding C.J. Sapong. Finally, the 17th minute saw Chris Pontius fire just wide with a header on a free-kick.

59′ – Philadelphia was given an advantage the rest of the way when Jimmy Medranda was given his second yellow card for hauling down Keegan Rosenberry on the edge of the box. Mandranda had been cautioned earlier for dissent when he laid into the referee following a first-half foul call.

67′ – Just moments after Dwyer missed wide right on a breakaway, Philadelphia capitalized on their man advantage. Fabinho connected with substitute Roland Alberg, and the 26-year-old Dutchman let loose a curler into the top right for a 1-0 lead. There was no looking back.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Fabinho

Goalscorers: Alberg 67′, Barnetta 90+2′