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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

Klopp hopes for speedy solution in club, fans’ ticket-price dispute

Liverpool's fans wave flags during the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Liverpool and Stoke City at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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From his time at Borussia Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp is used to a much more positive, family-like, everyone-pulling-in-the-same-direction atmosphere at his club of employment, so the present goings-on at Liverpool understandably have the Reds’ first-year manager feeling more than a little uneasy.

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Saturday’s late 2-2 draw with Sunderland wasn’t the first time Liverpool fans have headed for the exit before the final whistle, leaving Klopp feeling all alone, but it was the first time the fans have departed from Anfield early in a pre-planned, organized manner (Klopp missed the game himself with appendicitis). The Anfield faithful didn’t walk out on 77 minutes due to their team’s poor performance — Liverpool were 2-0 ahead at the time — but in protest of steadily rising ticket prices, which were unveiled at $111 per game to sit in the 132-year-old stadium’s new main stand next season.

Klopp, coming from the Bundesliga, where a season ticket at clubs the size of Bayern Munich and Dortmund doesn’t cost much more than a single-game ticket at many Premier League grounds, understands the fans’ frustration. At the end of the day, though, he works for the club, which is why he just wants the whole thing settled quickly, for the sake of his squad — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s not what we want. What I know is everyone in the club has a big interest in finding a solution for this. We don’t want people to leave the stadium before the game is finished.”

An LFC TV appearance by Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre, in which he was expected to answer fan-submitted questions, was consequently canceled on Monday due to the ongoing dispute.

West Ham want Payet to sign new contract for fear of losing him this summer

Dimitri Payet, West Ham United FC (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
AP Photo/Frank Augstein
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Dimitri Payet is going to be a red-hot commodity during this summer’s transfer window, there’s no doubt about it.

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Given he’s currently contracted to one of the Premier League’s “smaller” clubs — in comparison to some of the giants which are bound to be interested — West Ham United, there’s a decent-to-good chance he could be wearing a different club’s shirt come August. Especially if the 28-year-old attacker shows up and shows out at this summer’s European Championship in his native France.

If I can foresee the interest in Payet, then so too can the executives at West Ham, which is why manager Slaven Bilic took to the press on Monday to convey his desire for Payet to consider signing a new, increased contract at his earliest convenience — quotes from the Guardian:

“We are moving, the club is moving, with the new stadium, with the revenue and everything. We have to move and the most important move is to keep your best players and to add some new players who are needed and Dimitri Payet is our best player — I have no problem whatsoever to say that. Of course, I would love to have him happy, long term, at the club.”

Of course West Ham want Payet to sign a new deal immediately — doing so would accomplish two things in the club’s eyes: 1) increase the likelihood he remains at the club next season, or 2) insure the club receives a higher transfer fee for the player if he leaves in the summer anyway. The more total money remaining on his West Ham contract, the more they can demand of a prospective buyer.

[ MORE: Ronaldo commits himself to Real Madrid through 2018 ]

From Payet’s side — unless he has absolutely zero desire to move to a club like Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester United, where he’d likely be paid close to $200,000 per week — he’d be crazy to sign a new contract at this point. Not only would it make a move this summer more difficult, but a strong showing at EURO 2016 could be worth another $15,000 or $20,000 per week on a new contract with West Ham (his current contract is rumored to be close to $100,000 per week).

With as many as five seasons still remaining on his current contract (a one-year club option can be exercised at any point), and his stock perhaps at an all-time high, the next six months could hold Payet’s last chance to get really, really paid before he hits the downside of his career.

USWNT players’ union responds in USSF lawsuit

FILE - In this Sunday, July 5, 2015 file photo, the United States Women's National Team celebrates with the trophy after they beat Japan 5-2 in the FIFA Women's World Cup soccer championship in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Soccer Federation’s original lawsuit against the union for its champion women’s national team has been sealed after the governing body realized it had disclosed the home addresses and email accounts of many players, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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(AP) — The union that represents the Women’s World Cup-winning American national team opposed an expedited schedule in the lawsuit filed against it by the U.S. Soccer Federation last week, insisting no collective bargaining agreement exists.

The federation sued in an attempt to establish it has a contract with the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association that runs through this year’s Olympics until Dec. 31. The union maintains the memorandum of understanding agreed to in March 2013 can be terminated at any time.

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The USSF filed a motion Friday in U.S. District Court in Chicago asking for an expedited schedule, and the submitted opposition papers Monday that claim “facts asserted in the motion are nowhere near accurate and are hotly disputed.”

The union also maintains the USSF knew about the disagreement since July but did nothing about it.

An initial status conference is set for April 4.

Lionel Messi to undergo tests for lingering kidney problems

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds the ball during a quarterfinal, second leg, Copa del Rey soccer match against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Lionel Messi is to undergo medical tests to assess a recurrence of kidney problems.

[ MORE: Saturday’s La Liga roundup | Barca win on Sunday

Messi missed the Club World Cup semifinal in December due to a renal colic, an abdominal ailment often related to the presence of kidney stones within renal ducts.

Barcelona says in a statement Monday that the tests to be conducted by Tuesday at the latest, are “to assess the evolution of the kidney problem he suffered last December.”

[ MORE: Champions League returns next week — KO round matchups ]

The statement says Messi will resume training with the squad on Wednesday, when Barcelona travels to Valencia for the return leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals in which it carries a 7-0 lead.