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Copa del Rey: Benzema gives Real Madrid one-goal lead after leg one at Espanyol

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For the second time in 10 days, Real Madrid is leaving Estadi Cornellà-El Prat with a  1-0 win, but whereas their victory on Jan. 10 left questions doubt about the team’s new setup, a controlling performance on the back of a five-goal league win carries a different connotation. Instead of feeding doubts, today’s first leg win in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals augurs well for next week’s reverse, the Merengues having taken a confident step toward the competition’s final four.

That confidence was evident in the 15th minute when Gareth Bale’s flick of an Álvaro Arbeloa cross found Karim Benzema at the far post, the French international giving the visitors a 1-0 lead. It was also apparent in the second half when lax play gave Javier Aguierre’s side two chances to craft late equalizers. For most of the night, however, that confidence manifest in a tacit control of play, with El Real out-passing Espanyol 588-420 while maintaining 58 percent of possession.

It also led to seven shots on target, though Kiko Casilla didn’t have to give a remarkable effort to keep six of them out. Seemingly content with their one-goal lead, Real Madrid took the foot off the gas in the second half (if they ever had it on), recording only eight of their 22 shots after intermission. Over the final half hour, particularly after Xabi Alonso replaced Ángel Di María, los Blancos appeared intent on preserving a 1-0 lead for next week’s second leg.

In that way, today’s match had a slightly different feel from the one two Sundays ago. Then, as Carlo Ancelotti switched his side to a 4-3-3, the team had yet to prove their tweaks would lead to a more dominant product on the field. Failing to put more than one goal past Espanyol, Real Madrid looked like the decent but still lacking product they’d been throughout the fall.

By Tuesday, coming off a 5-0 win at Real Betis on Saturday, some of those questions have been answered. With five different goal scorers in Seville, Real Madrid showed the potential for a more diverse, potentially more potent attack. Being able to consistently produce such performances remains a doubt, but in controlling today’s match in Catalonia, Real Madrid showed their new approach may yet plug some of their holes.

In the context of a two-leg tie, a measured, controlling performance at Espanyol could be seen as an extension of this weekend’s dominance, even if the scoreboard shows a more modest result.

Premier League Team of the Week — Round 36

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 30: Karl Darlow of Newcastle United is congratulated by Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United after saving a penalty during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace at St James' Park on April 30, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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It’s incredible that Karl Darlow is Newcastle United’s starting goalkeeper, let alone a member of the PL Team of the Week.

The 25-year-old Northampton-born backstop is the Magpies’ third-choice keeper, having arrived from Nottingham Forest last summer to learn under Tim Krul and Rob Elliot.

[ VIDEO: Leicester fans react to title ]

But injuries to both of his international superiors thrust Darlow into the spotlight, and it took him some time to acclimate to the Premier League.

He looked just fine in Newcastle’s potentially massive 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, stopping a penalty amongst several other stops as the Magpies moved out of the drop zone for the first time since February.

Premier League Team of the Week — Week 36

Goalkeeper: Karl Darlow (Newcastle United)

Defenders: Wes Morgan (Leicester City), Leighton Baines (Everton), Winston Reid (West Ham United)

Midfielders: Mark Noble (West Ham United), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham United), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Andros Townsend (Newcastle United)

Forwards: Troy Deeney (Watford), Sadio Mane (Southampton), Andre Ayew (Swansea City)

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri’s best moments, quotes this season

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Claudio Ranieri the manager of Leicester City reacts as Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Chelsea at the King Power Stadium on December14, 2015 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri is everyone’s favorite manager.

And not just because “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” will be added to the English dictionary very soon.

The Italian boss, 64, has guided Leicester City to the 2015-16 Premier League title — the first top-flight trophy in their 132-year history — in just his first season in charge at the King Power Stadium.

[ VIDEO: Leicester players celebrate ]

He has guided the 5000-1 shots at the start of the season to an incredible title win. At the start of the campaign he was the favorite to be the first manager to be fired this season.

After spending four years at Chelsea from 2000-04 where he was ruthlessly sacked by Russian owner Roman Abramovich who didn’t believe he could win trophies, Ranieri has won the biggest one of them all in his first season back in England.  Remarkable.

[ MORE: Latest Leicester news after PL win ]  

The veteran boss has now won his first-ever league title in his long and distinguished managerial career against all the odds. He is, without doubt, the mastermind behind Leicester’s remarkable title win. There are calls for Ranieri to be knighted by the Queen of England and given what his team has achieved, why not?

Despite his obviously skill as a manager, he is also a genuinely nice bloke when it comes to interacting with fans and the media.

The video below looks at some of the most memorable moments this season from the lovable Italian.

Bellissimo.

Premier League Player of the Week — Round 36 (video)

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When Joe Hart looks to his left, he might expect to see a Sadio Mane shot going past him.

That’s how lethal the Southampton attacker was this weekend, recording a hat trick in Saints’ 4-2 win over Manchester City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Mane becomes the third Southampton player to snare Premier League Player of the Week honors this season, joining Graziano Pelle and Fraser Forster.

Just two more honors to go this PL season.

Premier League Players of the Week – Round 36

Week 1: Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

Week 2: Romelu Lukaku, Everton

Week 3: Callum Wilson, Bournemouth

Week 4: Bafetimbi Gomis, Swansea City

Week 5: Steven Naismith, Everton

Week 6: Anthony Martial, Manchester United

Week 7: Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal

Week 8: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Week 9: Raheem Sterling, Manchester City

Week 10: Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur

Week 11: Arouna Kone, Everton

Week 12: Jesse Lingard, Manchester United

Week 15: Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

Week 16: Ayoze Perez, Newcastle United

Week 17: Odion Ighalo, Watford

Week 19: Xherdan Shaqiri, Stoke City

Week 20: Jermain Defoe, Sunderland

Week 21: Jermain Defoe, Sunderland

Week 22: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Week 23: Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur

Week 24: Fraser Forster, Southampton

Week 25: Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa

Week 26: Pedro, Chelsea

Week 27: Marcus Rashford, Manchester United

Week 28: Connor Wickham, Crystal Palace

Week 29: Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

Week 30: Graziano Pelle, Southampton

Week 31: Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur

Week 32: Alex Iwobi, Arsenal

Week 33: Andy Carroll, West Ham United

Week 34: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Week 35: Eden Hazard, Chelsea

Week 36: Sadio Mane, Southampton

Pellegrini defends fielding “B” team in loss at Southampton

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MAY 01:  Kelechi Iheanacho (72), Samir Nasri (C) and Wilfred Bony of Manchester City (R) looks despondent as Sadio Mane of Southampton scores their fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini does not regret fielding a weakened side at Southampton over the weekend as he prepares for City’s Champions League semifinal at Real Madrid on Wednesday.

Pellegrini chose to rest many of his top players at St. Mary’s, including Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Vincent Kompany. City were smashed 4-2 in one of their worst performances of the season.

[ RECAP: Saints 4-2 Man City ]

Pellegrini defended his lineup decisions after the match, saying he is willing to risk results in the Premier League to reach the Champions League final.

We knew before the game it was a risk to put so many players without football against a difficult team but we have to take those risks. If we had played on Saturday we could put more players out. I was disappointed with the team. It’s my responsibility for the starting 11.

I would do exactly the same again because we have an important game.

We play for the final in the Champions League. We continue in the Premier League what we are going to do in the next two games to be in the top four so that was a risk but one we had to take.

While you would expect a drop-off when the likes of Aguero and de Bruyne are not on the pitch, City’s poor performance was much more than just a team selection issue. With Raheem Sterling ($75 million) and Wilfried Bony ($45 million) in the starting XI, it was 19-year-old academy product Kelechi Iheanacho who was one of the few players to show any type of effort against Saints.

Pellegrini may be overlooking the end of the Premier League season, but his side still needs points to secure a top-four spot and berth in the Champions League next year. City currently sit four points ahead of Manchester United, but United have a game in-hand.

[ MORE: Burnley become first Championship side to clinch PL promotion ]

City travel to Spain for the second leg of their Champions League semifinal matchup against Real Madrid on Wednesday. After settling for a 0-0 draw in the first leg, City must put the Southampton debacle behind them and turn things around before the one of the biggest matches in club history.