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Spain roundup: Barcelona finally falls from first; Atlético alone on top

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If the most diehard of Barcelona fans needed further proof their team is no longer at its Guardiola-era heights, they need only open up their favorite sports daily Monday morning. If they’re impatient, they can check here, here, or here, though no self-respecting Culé would get their information form the latter. Still, every source delivers the same shocking ews. For the first time in 59 games, Barcelona does not lead La Liga, their 3-2 home loss to Valencia seeing Atlético Madrid claim sole possession of first place.

Taking advantage of Barcelona’s slip, Atleti moved three points clear with their 4-0 win over Real Sociedad – an unexpectedly lopsided result against a La Real side that’s fought their way back into Champions League contention. Sunday at the Vicente Calderón, they may as well have been Real Betis. Atlético closed with three goals in regulation’s final 18 minutes to claim their 18th win of the year, a result that reinforced the gravity of Barcelona’s slip.

Gerardo Martino’s team hadn’t lost at home in league since April 2012, but they have given Atlético other chances this season to claim the top spot. Recently Barcelona were held to a 1-1 draw at Levante only to see the Colchoneros waste their chance to go top after they were drawn at home by Sevilla. On Sunday, however, David Villa’s first half goal gave Diego Simeone’s side all it’d need, with second half scores from Diego Costa, Miranda, and the recently returned Diego allowing Atlético to put up the Barcelona-esque scored.

”This is something nice for the players, who have made such effort and go into every single game with the same intensity and work ethic,” Simeone said of his team’s effort on a night the Calderón honored the departed Luis Aragonés. ”Luis would appreciate the team’s courage, since he was a courageous type with character, just like this team.”

The Blaugrana couldn’t find the same killer instinct on Saturday. Despite going up through Alexis Sánches after seven minutes, Barça approached halftime with only a one-goal advantage. Shortly before the whistle, Valencia was able to steal a equalizer from Dani Perejo despite being second best for most of the half.

Three minutes into the second, Pablo Piatti’s goals saw Los Che claim an unlikely lead. A Ricardo Costa penalty gave Lionel Messi an equalizer in the 54th, but when Paco Alcácer responded five minutes later, the last salvo in Barcelona’s upset had been cast. Jordi Alba’s 78th minute dismissal sealed their fate.

“I would say to [my team] that everything continues, that we may lose the leadership of the league, but that we will still continue to fight,” ,” Martino said after the match, taking a broader view on a loss the redefined the top of Spain’s standings.

“We will try to recover the lost ground on our title rivals. We conceded chances to Valencia and they took advantage of them. We need to keep going and keep in mind how much this hurt us today.”

Barcelona could point to the loss of an injured Neymar, but the Brazilian’s other absences hadn’t slowed them down. Andrés Iniesta could only give them 25 minutes, while Carles Puyol was out. At each level of the field, Barcelona could make an excuse, none of which can offset the loss of their home winning streak, the end to their season-and-a-half run a top the league, or their disadvantage on a seemingly improving Atlético.

As Atlético incorporates players like Diego and Jose Sosa while continuing to mature into their contenders’ identity, Barcelona has new reason to doubt. Not only have they failed to win in three meetings this season with Atlético, but their home invincibility is no more. Their loss to Valencia could serve as a reminder that a huge swath of Spain present potential downfalls, or it could plant a seed of doubt that hasn’t been present in since before Pep Guardiola.

With Manchester City coming up in Champions League, we’ll soon have our answers. Right now, the two best teams in Europe appear to be Bayern Munich and City. Barcelona and Atlético each had claims to be in that picture, but having won only one of their last four league games, the Blaugrana are suddenly more vulnerable than their recent pedigree would imply.

Real Madrid take point at San Mamés

El Real’s result in Basque Country seems like a good opportunity to note the difference between their level and that of Atlético and Barcelona. But we hammered that home last week. Besides, one point at Athletic is not a poor result. Although Atlético Madrid claimed the first win at the new San Mames earlier this week (in Copa del Rey), comparing Real Madrid to their crosstown rivals is becoming an increasing unforgiving standard. By more reasonable measures, the Merengues got a valuable point against the league’s fourth place team.

Despite ceding control of the ball — their new 4-3-3 allowing them to manage play without dominating possession — Real Madrid went up early in the second half, Jesé grabbing a 65th minute opener while taking Gareth Bale’s spot in the starting lineup. Eight minutes later, however, Ibai scored with his second touch after coming on for Iker Munain, giving Athletic an equalizer that would hold through full time.

“In the first-half Athletic pressed a lot and that made it difficult to play the ball on the ground so we played more on the counter-attack,” Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti said after the match.

“In the second-half, the intensity of their pressure dropped a bit and we played better in possession, we scored and had good control of the game.

“Bilbao scored a fantastic goal, but in general I personally am satisfied with how Real Madrid played.”

Kicking off in the last game of the day, Real Madrid knew they would pass Barcelona with a win. Their inability to grab one will surely disappoint them, even if may take a few days for that perspective to settle in.

The more lasting disappointment, however, may be Cristiano Ronaldo’s suspension, with the Blancos star set to miss three games after seeing straight red in the 75th minute. Though the decision appeared to be harsh, Ronaldo is still set for a prolonged absence, one that could leave a recently goal-starved Real Madrid susceptible to draws without their biggest star.

They do lead the league in goals (61), but since switching to their new formation earlier this month, Real Madrid have only scored three goals in a game once – the five-goal outburst the saw Real Betis fire Juan Carlos Garrido fired. Sunday against Athletic, that lack of punch cost them, leaving El Real  in third place despite a chance to pass Barcelona.

Elsewhere

  • Granada 1, Celta Vigo 2 – Celta’s won three out of four and reached 12th after an 88th minute goal from Augusto Fernandez gave Luis Enrique’s team their seventh win of the season.
  • Levante 0, Rayo Vallecano 0 – The possession-hogging Vallecano were able to retain 58 percent of the ball and limit Levante to two shots on goal, but Paco Jémez’s side remains in 19th place after their scoreless draw.
  • Getafe 0, Valladolid 0 – Getafe is winless in league since Nov. 29 after a match that saw the teams combine for three shots on goal.
  • Málaga 3, Sevilla 2 – Sevilla falls for the second game in row as Málaga stops their slide toward relegation, with late goals from Samuel and Duda giving them the home side its first win in five.
  • Elche 1, Almeria 0 – Christian Herrera’s 58th minute goal holds up, leaving Almeria within two points of the bottom three.
  • Real Betis 2, Espanyol 0 – The Verdiblancos’ first win under Gabriel Calderón gives the team new hopes of survival, though Ruben Castro’s late double still leaves them eight points from safety.

Others
Barcelona 2, Valencia 3
Atlético Madrid 4, Real Sociedad 0
Athletic Club 1, Real Madrid 1

Monday
Villarreal vs. Osasuna

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Atlético Madrid 22 18 3 1 56 14 42 10-2-0 8-1-1 57
Barcelona 22 17 3 2 59 16 43 10-0-1 7-3-1 54
Real Madrid 22 17 3 2 61 22 39 9-0-1 8-3-1 54
Athletic 22 13 4 5 42 28 14 9-3-0 4-1-5 43
Villarreal 21 11 4 6 39 22 17 6-3-2 5-1-4 37
Real Sociedad 22 10 6 6 42 34 8 7-2-1 3-4-5 36
Sevilla 22 8 7 7 41 37 4 5-2-3 3-5-4 31
Valencia 22 8 4 10 31 35 -4 5-2-4 3-2-6 28
Levante 22 7 7 8 22 30 -8 3-5-3 4-2-5 28
Espanyol 22 7 5 10 25 29 -4 5-2-4 2-3-6 26
Celta Vigo 22 7 4 11 29 35 -6 3-4-4 4-0-7 25
Getafe 22 7 4 11 22 34 -12 4-4-4 3-0-7 25
Málaga 22 6 6 10 22 29 -7 5-1-5 1-5-5 24
Granada 22 7 3 12 20 29 -9 3-1-8 4-2-4 24
Elche 22 6 6 10 20 32 -12 4-3-5 2-3-5 24
Osasuna 21 6 4 11 18 34 -16 3-2-5 3-2-6 22
Almería 22 6 4 12 22 41 -19 3-3-4 3-1-8 22
Valladolid 22 4 8 10 24 37 -13 3-4-3 1-4-7 20
Rayo Vallecano 22 5 2 15 21 51 -30 2-0-8 3-2-7 17
Betis 22 3 5 14 20 47 -27 3-3-6 0-2-8 14

Klinsmann wants top-four finish at Copa America, but can the USMNT do it?

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: The USA soccer team poses for a group photo before taking on Bolivia in the international friendly match between Bolivia and United States on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
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With the United States kicking off the Copa America this Friday, Jurgen Klinsmann has made his goal clear:

Reach the final four.

After a disappointing showing last summer in the Gold Cup and a poor finish to 2015, the USMNT heads into the Copa winners of six of their last seven matches and ready to make a run. But can they really reach the semifinal?

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

The U.S. faces their toughest test in the opening match against Colombia. One of the most dangerous teams in the tournament, few are expecting the U.S. to get a result against Los Cafeteros. Just a draw would be a great result for Klinsmann’s men, but it will be a big ask against the fourth-ranked team in the world.

The second match against Costa Rica is key. The two CONCACAF foes have plenty of experience playing against each other, and it is a relatively even matchup. The last time these sides met in October, the U.S. put in one of their worst performances ever under Klinsmann, and he must avoid a similar result at the Copa. If the United States wants to secure their position as one of CONCACAF’s top two sides along with Mexico, they cannot afford to drop points against Costa Rica.

Paraguay will be the USMNT’s final opponent, a very intriguing matchup for Klinsmann. Paraguay’s recent form doesn’t look threatening on paper, as Ramon Diaz’s side has not won since November, taking just two wins from their last 12 matches overall. However, they reached the quarterfinals in last summer’s Copa, earning a draw against Argentina and knocking out Brazil in penalty kicks.

[ MORE: Klinsmann excited about USMNT’s promising youngsters ]

The two sides that advance from Group A will face off against Group B in the quarters. Brazil are the heavy favorites in that group, paired with Ecuador, Peru, and Haiti. The U.S. beat Ecuador last week, defeated Peru in a September friendly, and are strides above Haiti, arguably the weakest team in the field. With Brazil likely to win Group B, a second-place finish in Group A would give the U.S. a brutal matchup in the quarters. Brazil embarrassed Klinsmann’s side in Massachusetts last fall, walking over the U.S. en route to an easy 4-1 win.

[ MORE: Mexico’s Pulido fought off kidnappers to call police for help ]

With the prospect of potentially facing Brazil in the quarters, the U.S. needs to put all their focus on winning Group A if Klinsmann really wants to reach the semifinals. The only match that the U.S. is not expected to take points from is the opener against Colombia, meaning a surprise result, however unlikely it may be, could kickstart a nice little run for the Stars and Stripes.

Firm issues plan urging companies to let employees watch EURO 2016

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England celebrates with team mates after scoring his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Worried about trying to balance work with EURO 2016 this summer? Acas is here to help.

Acas, a British conciliation firm that helps companies maintain good working relationships with their employees, has called for bosses to allow their staff to watch EURO matches.

[ MORE: Bellerin to make Spain squad ]

Some matches, including England’s Group B showdown with Wales, kick off during the workday at 3 p.m. London time.

Sir Brendan Barber, who is the chairman of Acas, believes workers should be given some time off during games, or work later hours on other days to allow time to watch the EURO.

The EURO 2016 tournament is an exciting event for football fans but staff should avoid getting a red card for unreasonable demands or behaviour in the workplace during this period.

Employers should have a set of agreements before kick-off to help ensure their businesses remain productive while keeping staff happy too.

Our guidance can help managers get the best from their teams, arrange substitutions if necessary and avoid unnecessary penalties or unplanned sendings off.

With the tournament getting underway on June 10, I suggest printing out Acas’ statement and seeing if your boss will follow the sage advice of Sir Brendan Barber.

VIDEO: Payet scores sensational free kick winner for France

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 25:  Dimitri Payet of France in action during the International Friendly match between Netherlands and France at Amsterdam Arena on March 25, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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Don’t let Dimitri Payet get a free kick, because he’s probably going to score.

After scoring four of his 12 goals for West Ham from dead-ball situations this season, his touch has carried over to the French national team.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO coverage ]

With France playing Cameroon and the match tied 2-2 in the 90th minute, Payet stepped up from about 30 yards out and did this:

While there may be some suspect goalkeeping on this one, it’s a stellar strike that found the top corner perfectly from a tough angle for a right-footed shot.

[ MORE: Saints set to give Long new contract as Liverpool, Spurs show interest ]

Payet has three goals for the French national team, with two of them coming from free kicks. After being named to the PFA Team of the Year this season, Payet will be a key member of the France squad that has high hopes as the host nation for the upcoming EURO.

El Tri striker Pulido fought kidnappers, used cell phone to call police

HYERES, FRANCE - JUNE 01:  Alan Pulido (no.19) of Mexico celebrates his goal during the Toulon Tournament Final between  Mexico and Turkey at Stade Perruc on June 1, 2012 in Hyeres, France.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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More details have been released regarding Alan Pulido’s kidnapping in Mexico.

The Mexican international and Olympiakos striker was taken at gunpoint early Sunday morning in Tamaulipas. He was then freed on Monday after a police “rescue operation.”

Seen leaving the police station with a bandaged hand, officials have now given information on how Pulido was injured.

[ MORE: PSG defender Aurier arrested ]

The 25-year-old striker cut his hand while punching through a glass pane in an attempt to escape. Officials also said Pulido fought his kidnapper, doing enough to grab a cell phone and notify police of his whereabouts.

From BBC News:

State prosecutor Ismael Quintanilla said the masked gang had taken Pulido to a house in Ciudad Victoria where he eventually found himself alone with one of his abductors.

“They traded blows. He takes it [the phone] and calls [emergency number] 066. It all happened very quickly,” Mr Quintanilla told Imagen radio.

An official report of the calls Pulido made to the emergency operator, obtained by the Associated Press, revealed that he threatened and beat the kidnapper while on the phone, demanding to be told where they were.

In one of the calls, Pulido said police were outside and starting to shoot so he described what he was wearing to avoid being mistaken for a kidnapper.

A wild situation, but the most important thing is that Pulido is safe while one arrest has been made.