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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

FIFA candidate Prince Ali claims voting pledge from Liberia

Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, flanked by school-age soccer players in uniforms, speaks before about 300 guests during an event at a Roman amphitheater in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. The prince is running for FIFA president, saying Wednesday he will fight "deep-seated corruption and political deal-making" and make soccer's scandal-scarred governing body more transparent. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
AP Photo/Raad Adayleh
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AMMAN, Jordan (AP) FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan says the Liberia soccer federation has pledged its vote to him.

Liberia follows Egypt as the second African voter claimed by Prince Ali since the Confederation of African Football’s leadership endorsed Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain on Friday.

The CAF executive committee urged the 54 African voters among FIFA’s 209-strong membership to back the sheikh in the Feb. 26 election.

Prince Ali’s campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.

Bility writes that Prince Ali “represents real change” while other candidates are “not even prepared to criticize” the FIFA system.

Bility was himself an applicant in the presidential contest, then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA’s election monitoring committee.

LVG says Mourinho speculation is false, calls the whole thing “nonsense”

Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho, center left, makes his way from the opposition dugout after greeting Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, centre right, during their English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
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Louis Van Gaal is sick and tired of the media speculating about his employment (or potential lack thereof), as well as reports linking the presently unemployed Jose Mourinho to his job, so what we’re going to do now is speculate on those reports a bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

But first, we’ll give Van Gaal the chance to tell his side of the story. Who better to explain what’s going on at Manchester United than the manager of Man United, right? OK, Louis, take it away, mate — quotes from the Guardian:

“The last two months have been very difficult for my wife, my kids, my grandchildren and my friends to cope with. For me too, but I can cope. In the Netherlands they know I am too arrogant to doubt myself, but I also know that such a nonsense is being created about me. I do not believe that there is already a relationship between José Mourinho and Manchester United.”

“It is logical when you have lost four matches in a row, people are bound to be doubting. … I criticize the media for inventing stories. I never hired security. Never ever. And I am walking on the streets without security and all the people I meet are very positive.”

OK, now that that’s out of the way, Jose Mourinho is definitely talking to Manchester United, or someone is doing so on his behalf. There’s arguably never been a more sitting-duck manager in world football than Van Gaal is right now — not only have the results been extremely “meh” for nearly two seasons now, but he’s also got less than 18 months left on his contract, which means it would cost the club considerably less to make him go away than, say, David Moyes, who still had more than five years(!!!) left on his deal when he was fired in April of his first season.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL preview — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

Also, they were totally in for Pep Guardiola, too, and since they didn’t get him, they’ll have to respond thusly, and since Carlo Ancelotti has already been named Guardiola’s successor at Bayern Munich, Mourinho is the last “big name” out there right now. Unless, of course, they wanted to tap up Manuel Pellegrini, who’s on his way out to make room for Guardiola. Could be fun. But not as fun as Jose back in the Premier League, at Man United, in the same city with Pep. Remember the last time those two were employed on opposite sides of a heated rivalry?

As spectacular as this year’s PL season has been — and it’s bordering on the best of all time, still with 13 weeks to go — think about what that means for next season. It’s going to have be even more bonkers, so as not to seem boring by comparison. Louis van Gaal seems like a nice enough guy, but his team’s football isn’t that exciting on the field, and he offers little more off it. Mourinho isn’t the hero we deserve, but he’s certainly the one we need.

Another one: Lavezzi the latest star set for the riches of China

Paris Saint Germain's Ezequiel Lavezzi form Argentina, celebrates the opening goal during a French league one soccer match between Paris-Saint-Germain and Rennes at Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Paris Saint Germain clinhed its second straight French league title on Wednesday after rival Monaco drew 1-1 against French Cup holder Guingamp. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
AP Photo/Michel Euler
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The list just keeps growing; Ezequiel Lavezzi, he of Paris Saint-Germain and Argentine national team fame, is the latest star leaving Europe behind with the Chinese Super League his next stop, according to multiple reports Saturday night.

[ MORE: The latest transfer news and gossip ]

Linked with a move to Premier League side Chelsea during the recently completed January transfer window, a move away from PSG never materialized for the 30-year-old. Not on the European continent, at least.

Now, the former Napoli, San Lorenzo and Estudiantes (Argentina) attacker is set for Shanghai Shenhua, where he’ll reportedly take home something in the $11-to-15-million-per-year ballpark. When you can somehow get a raise from your current deal with a Qatar Sports Investments-owned club… well, I guess you’d be dumb not to do it.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Leicester hammer Man City, Spurs go 2nd ]

It was already pretty well known Lavezzi would be leaving the French capital in 2016, but when his tenure survived through much of Europe’s winter window, it seemed he would hang around until the expiration of his current contract before moving elsewhere on a free transfer.

Then came the monstrous windfall of cash into and subsequent spending by CSL clubs over the last two weeks; Lavezzi joins the likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Jackson Martinez, Alex Teixeira, Demba Ba and Fredy Guarin, among others, to move to China for massive annual salaries. At Shenhua, Lavezzi will play alongside Ba and Guarin, as well as former Everton and New York Red Bulls man Tim Cahill, who made the move to China last year.

The CSL’s transfer window doesn’t close until Feb. 26, so the spending spree may well go on a little while long.

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Atleti bounce back to keep pressure on Barca

Atletico's Jose Maria Gimenez, right, celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico de Madrid and Eibar at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights:

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Eibar

The race for the La Liga title isn’t over quite yet — though Barcelona are overwhelmingly favorites at the moment — and Atletico Madrid will have to keep winning, with just about no room for error, to keep it that way. On Saturday, they did just that by defending their home turf, to the tune of a 3-1 victory over Eibar.

Keko put the visitors ahead in the 46th minute, but Jose Gimenez quickly opened the scoring for Atleti and equalized on 56 minutes. Saul Niguez made it 2-1 to Atleti seven minutes later, and Fernando Torres’ 100th career goal (below video) gave Los Rojiblancos a bit of insurance in the first minute of second-half stoppage time. With the victory, Atleti are level on 51 points with Barca, but the Catalan giants have two games in hand on Madrid’s “other” team, the first of which they’ll play on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Rayo Vallecano 2-0 Las Palmas
Athletic Bilbao 0-0 Villarreal
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Deportivo La Coruña

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Levante vs. Barcelona (6 a.m. ET)
Real Betis vs. Valencia (10 a.m. ET)
Celta Vigo vs. Sevilla (12:15 p.m. ET)
Granada vs. Real Madrid (2:30 p.m. ET)


Bologna 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina have left the door wide open for Inter Milan to re-enter the top three — and UEFA Champions League-qualifying — places with a 1-1 draw away to Bologna. The Viola finished the game with 10 men after Matias Fernandez was sent off for two yellow cards 10 minutes apart either side of halftime.

Their opening goal, which gave them the lead in the 59th minute, was beautifully worked and wonderfully taken by Federico Bernardeschi (below video). It was quickly canceled out, though, as Emanuele Giaccherini equalized four minutes later to earn a point and strengthen Bologna’s hold on 10th place in the league table.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Genoa 0-0 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Hellas Verona vs. Inter Milan (6:30 a.m. ET)
Napoli vs. Carpi (9 a.m. ET)
Torino vs. Chievo (9 a.m. ET)
Frosinone vs. Juventus (9 a.m. ET)
Sassuolo vs. Palermo (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Empoli (12 p.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (2:45 p.m. ET)