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Spain roundup: Barcelona, Atlético draws bring Real Madrid within one of first

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Real Madrid started the new year a distant third in Spain, two draws and two losses in 17 games leaving Carlo Ancelotti’s team five points behind Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. Now, three games later, the Merengues have cut that gap to one, with Saturday’s match at Real Betis finally hinting at an ability to keep up with the competition.

Sitting in last place, the Verdiblancos wouldn’t normally be a good litmus test for a title aspirant, but with Real Madrid’s attack failing to get out of first gear since the calendar turned, Saturday’s style points were just as important as the bottom line. The team needed to prove their switch to a 4-3-3 formation could be a fruitful one, particularly after the set up failed to ignite fireworks against Espanyol and Osasuna.

On Saturday, however, those fireworks started after 10 minutes. That’s when Cristiano Ronaldo began an onslaught that would leave Real Madrid up 3-0 at halftime. Building on Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema’s goals, Ángel Di María scored just after the hour, with Álvaro Morata adding the final near full-time. For the first time since doing it back-to-back in November, los Blancos scored five times in a game, with five different goal scorers making this more than just a Ronaldo-led explosion.

On Sunday, Betis parted ways with head coach Juan Carlos Garrido, his dismissal highlighting the downward spiral being experienced in Seville. Still, this was Betis’s worst lost since visiting Atlético in late October, something that highlight’s Real Madrid’s performance. Although the Betícos have been poor, they’ve rarely been this bad. Real Madrid deserves credit for that.

source: APBarcelona, Atlético draw Real near

The big payoff for the Merengues came on Sunday when Barcelona and Atlético were unexpectedly tripped up. Dropping points for only the fourth time this season, Spain’s two front-runners brought El Real within a point of the top, with draws to Levante and Sevilla leaving each club on 51 points for the season.

Barcelona’s result was the slightly more one surprising, and not only because Levante entered the weekend in 12th place. Held scoreless after Gerard Piqué’s 19th minute equalizer pulled back Loukas Vyntra’s opener, the defending champions couldn’t take advantage of a team that’s allowed 27 goals in 19 rounds. Despite 74 percent possession and six shots on goal, the Blaugrana were left with a 1-1 draw, leaving the door open for Atlético to claim first place.

To walk through that door, however, the Colchoneros would have to beat a Sevilla side that hasn’t lost in league since Nov. 2. After 17 minutes, however, Atlético were on their way, getting an early opener from David Villa. For the next 55 minutes, the score would remain 1-0, but after Juanfran was whistled for a foul in the penalty area, Ivan Rakitic’s ninth goal of the season brought the teams back to even footing. Despite seeing Alberto Moreno red carded in the 89th minute, Sevilla would hold on for the 1-1 draw.

Barcelona’s result tempers the impact of Atlético’s disappointment, but having known at kickoff that their title rivals dropped points, Sunday’s game became a must win for Atleti – a rare chance to gain ground on a team that rarely drops points. Instead, Atlético stayed even with Barcelona, second place on goal difference. In the process, they helped rekindle Real Madrid’s title hopes.

Elsewhere in Spain

  • Málaga 0, Valencia 0 – First half opportunities settled into a second half stalemate as Bernd Schuster’s team creeped ever-closer to a relegation battle.
  • Elche 2, Rayo Vallecano 0 – Raúl Baena’s 18th minute red card allowed Edu Albácar to open the scoring from the spot, with Javier Márquez providing insurance in the 79th minute.
  • Granada 0, Osasuna 0 – The visitors failed to put a shot on target while Asier Riesgo kept all three Granada shots out, leaving both teams stuck in the middle of La Liga’s table.
  • Espanyol 1, Celta Vigo 0 – A game short on chances was decided two minutes from time when Sergio Garcia, with the match’s only clear opportunity, found a corner to give the Catalans their seventh win of the season.
  • Villarreal 2, Almeria 0 – The Yellow Submarine return to the top four on the back of goals from Ikechukuwu Uche and Bruno, the second coming from the spot in the 87th minute.

Others
Real Betis 0, Real Madrid 5
Levante 1, Barcelona 1
Atlético Madrid 1, Sevilla 1

Monday
Athletic Club vs. Real Valladolid

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 20 16 3 1 54 13 41 9-0-0 7-3-1 51
Atlético Madrid 20 16 3 1 48 12 36 9-2-0 7-1-1 51
Real Madrid 20 16 2 2 58 21 37 8-0-1 8-2-1 50
Villarreal 20 11 4 5 39 21 18 6-3-2 5-1-3 37
Athletic 19 11 3 5 32 24 8 8-2-0 3-1-5 36
Real Sociedad 20 9 6 5 38 30 8 6-2-1 3-4-4 33
Sevilla 20 8 7 5 37 31 6 5-2-2 3-5-3 31
Espanyol 20 7 4 9 23 25 -2 5-2-4 2-2-5 25
Valencia 20 7 3 10 26 31 -5 5-1-4 2-2-6 24
Granada 20 7 3 10 19 25 -6 3-1-7 4-2-3 24
Levante 20 6 6 8 19 28 -9 3-4-3 3-2-5 24
Getafe 20 7 3 10 22 33 -11 4-3-4 3-0-6 24
Osasuna 20 6 4 10 17 29 -12 3-2-4 3-2-6 22
Málaga 20 5 6 9 19 24 -5 4-1-5 1-5-4 21
Elche 20 5 6 9 19 28 -9 3-3-5 2-3-4 21
Celta Vigo 20 5 4 11 23 32 -9 2-4-4 3-0-7 19
Almería 20 5 4 11 21 40 -19 2-3-4 3-1-7 19
Valladolid 19 3 7 9 21 33 -12 2-4-3 1-3-6 16
Rayo Vallecano 20 5 1 14 19 47 -28 2-0-7 3-1-7 16
Betis 20 2 5 13 16 43 -27 2-3-6 0-2-7 11

Allardyce on Palace’s “great victory” over Boro

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25:  Sam Allardyce manager of Crystal Palace signals during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough at Selhurst Park on February 25, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images
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Big Sam got a big win, and he knows it.

Two days after tearing into his players for not adapting to his system, the Crystal Palace boss was glowing with praise after the Eagles knocked off visiting Middlesbrough in a relegation six-pointer on Saturday.

[ MORE: Palace 1-0 Middlesbrough ]

The win lifts Palace out of the drop zone, a point ahead of Leicester City who plays Monday. Allardyce is shaping his own Premier League table and he’ll try to lift a sort of Bottom Seven trophy after the season

From the BBC:

“It’s a great victory. I think the two-week break helped us refocus and that showed – today they made a lot of very good decisions.

“The three points are important as it puts us in amongst the pack, out of the bottom three and a bit closer to Bournemouth.

“I see the bottom seven as the Premier League table we need to try and win. If we can achieve more then that would be great but we need to make next week’s game against West Brom a game to win.”

Crystal Palace have too much talent to be in this spot, and Allardyce’s acumen as a “never relegated” manager has not been questioned much despite the Eagles falling into a worse spot than they were when Alan Pardew was fired. Is this finally their move out of trouble, or just a clean sheet against a Boro team that can’t score?

Conte delighted with his ruthless Chelsea machine

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Chelsea are a machine.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

The Blues beat Swansea City 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League to 11 points as the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal are all on a weekend off due to the EFL Cup final.

Facing a stubborn Swansea side, Chelsea went ahead through the excellent Cesc Fabregas and even when they were pegged back right on half time through Fernando Llorente’s header you expected them to kick on win the game.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings

They did just that as Antonio Conte‘s men were relentless throughout and goals from Pedro and Diego Costa late on made it 20 wins from 26 games this season as their title procession continues.

Speaking after the game, Conte was asked if this win was simply another step on their way to winning the title.

“Yeah, I think it is another step,” Conte said. “For sure a good game, a good win and it wasn’t easy to play against them because I watched Swansea’s games against Liverpool and City and they played very well. I think today we deserved, a lot, to win the game. We created many chances in the game, we dominated the game in the first half.

“It is a pity for the goal we conceded at the end of half time. In the second half we started again and created chances with Hazard and then Cesc hitting the crossbar. I am pleased because now, to play the ball is not easy because the season is going to end. In this moment it is very important to have the performance of my players.”

The Italian manager also admitted that a pivotal moment in the game went Chelsea’s way. With the score still locked at 1-1 with 20 minutes to Gylfi Sigurdsson‘s trickery saw Cesar Azpilicueta handle in the box. Referee Neil Swarbrick waved away the penalty calls but Conte admitted the ball hit Azpilicueta’s hand despite it being very close to Sigurdsson and perhaps unintentional.

Moments later Pedro scored to put Chelsea ahead as they powered to yet another victory, their 10th straight at home in the Premier League.

Nobody looks like catching this Chelsea side as Eden Hazard and Fabregas dazzled in the drizzle at Stamford Bridge and Costa was at his clinical best.

A brief defensive lapse aside, this was a dominant and well-deserved win against a dogged Swansea outfit.

In the words of Jay Z – “On to the next one.”

That’s a trip across London to West Ham on Mar. 6, as games against Stoke City and Crystal Palace follow. The way Conte’s side are playing and finishing teams off, they could have this thing all but sewn by April 1 when they face Manchester City at Stamford Bridge.

Men In Blazers podcast: Pochettino, Lloris discuss “To Dare Is To Do”

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Hugo Lloris of Tottenham Hotspur and Mauricio Pochettino, Manager of Tottenham Hotspur after the goalkeeper was substitued during the Premier League match between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park on August 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
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Rog speaks with Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, and head of coaching and development John McDermott in a preview of his film, “Premier League Download: Tottenham Hotspur: To Dare is to Do” which airs Sunday at 11 a.m. ET after Spurs vs. Stoke City on NBCSN.

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Watch Live: Watford vs. West Ham (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10: Troy Deeney of Watford (L) struggles to hold off Michail Antonio of West Ham United (R) during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Watford at Olympic Stadium on September 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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Vicarage Road is the scene for a Saturday afternoon clash between top half hopefuls West Ham United and Watford (Watch Live at 12:30 p.m. EDT on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

The Irons have 32 points and the hopes of continuing an upward climb to the position they wanted back when this season began in August.

The Hornets are two points below West Ham, having dealt with a woeful stretch in form to climb back to within sight of 10th.

LINEUPS

Watford: Gomes; Janmaat, Kaboul, Britos, Holebas; Cleverley, Behrami, Capoue; Zárate, Deeney, Niang. Subs: Arlauskis, Prödl, Cathcart, Zúñiga, Doucouré, Success, Okaka.

West Ham United: Randolph, Cresswell, Fonte, Reid, Antonio, Obiang, Kouyate, Noble, Snodgrass, Lanzini, Feghouli. Subs: Adrian, Byram, Masuaku, Collins, Fernandes, Ayew, Calleri.