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

Galaxy’s Cole admits he enjoys Arsenal struggles

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LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.

Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

As the most capped fullback in England’s history who boasts both Premier League and Champions League titles with Chelsea, Cole easily could rest on his own laurels and move on from the divorce.

But when asked whether he’s enjoying Arsenal’s current struggles, Cole couldn’t help himself.

“If I’m honest, yeah, I still think to this day. I laugh to myself. I had a lot of history there and I think the way I left was maybe a bit dodgy but the lack of respect they showed me as well.”

Cole accepts a share of the blame for his time ended at Arsenal, but says he doesn’t regret it. Still, his response is not a picture of class.

Next time, just laugh and say, “Next question,” Ashley.

“I’m not a bad guy” – Convicted murderer, new club defend signing

AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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A week ago, we brought you the story of goalkeeper Bruno Fernandes finding a new club despite a conviction for ordering the torture and murder of his mistress, whose body was then fed to dogs. The two were having a disagreement on child support.

Fernandes, 32, was set free from jail on a technicality and has since been signed by Boa Esporte in Brazil. He said he couldn’t “throw in the towel” on his career because he believed in himself.

Fans were outraged with the team, major sponsors pulled their funding, and an activist group even hacked Boa Esporte’s web page.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

And the club is digging in its heels.

Boa Esporte’s president, Rone Moraes da Costa, reacted to protests by saying he’d rather move the team than not give Fernandes a chance to resurrect his career.

As for Fernandes, he clearly is having trouble explaining why he’s getting another chance. From The Guardian:

“What happened, happened. I made a mistake, a serious one, but mistakes happens in life – I’m not a bad guy. People tried to bury my dream because of one mistake, but I asked God for forgiveness, so I’m carrying on with my career, dude. I’m starting over.”

One mistake. Wow. There are few clubs in the world which fit the bill of being the majority of fans’ least favorite team, but Boa Esporte could get there. Surely there must be more to the story?

Nothing new about the challenges facing USMNT

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This next week may define a generation of USMNT players, but only if it goes poorly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it isn’t. The United States started 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying, earned its coach a firing, and now stares down its status in the confederation.

Honduras is coming on Friday, far from a pushover. Then it’s off to Panama for another tricky tie. In a vacuum, coming up short in one of the two isn’t the end of the world, but the Yanks will be expected to take a minimum four points. Even that would be a disappointment to many.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

The crutches are gone, aside from any being used by injured players back in Germany (Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson chief amongst them). Fifteen of Honduras’ players play domestically, and Panama isn’t much better in overall quality.

Frankly, and it’s been written before, the United States should outclass both of these foes. If Bruce Arena’s bunch doesn’t, well, it spells woe for the country’s soccer development as a whole.

For now, supporters and players have been able to cling to the thought that Jurgen Klinsmann was responsible for the Yanks’ struggles. In some ways, he most certainly was to blame for setbacks like the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico and the pathetic performance against Costa Rica that earned him a firing.

Several of the United States’ current elder statesmen have built legacies that can survive big hits. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may go down in history as the two biggest stars in program history (There will be an argument for both as No. 1 along with Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna). DaMarcus Beasley is an all-timer, too.

Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, and Jozy Altidore are on track for that, too, and there’s an argument to be made the trio is already there, especially for Cameron, who’s a mainstay in the Premier League. Each has found success in Europe after getting their starts in Major League Soccer, and have etched their names into the national record books.

There’s still very little reason to believe the USMNT will miss the 2018 World Cup even with the 0-2 start. The class is just too much to consider the Yanks will finish below Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago over the course of 10 matches (The fourth place side gets a shot at an Asian side like Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Uzbekistan in a two-legged affair).

But turning it around has to start now. The Yanks have to handle their business in these qualifiers, and make at least the Gold Cup final to build momentum toward Russia. Anything short of that is abject failure.

Again, this absolutely should happen, starting Friday. Even given the poor start, losses or even a pair of draws this week would be legitimately shocking, and set the program back ages. Howard set it up well Tuesday when he pointed out that the U.S. has gotten to points like this before, and they always belly up to the bar and outlast all comers.

A lot of fans have this nagging voice in their heads, asking nefariously, “What if they don’t?”

Podolski after golazo finale: “This is like a great movie”

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Lukas Podolski has won a EURO, a World Cup, and the Bundesliga with two different sides.

Only Lothar Matthaus and Miroslav Klose have been capped more than Germany’s Polish born Podolski, and he received a hero’s send-off from the home crowd at Germany’s 1-0 win over England on Wednesday.

And of course he sent himself off in style with a gorgeous goal.

[ MORE: Guardiola close to adding $43m GK? ]

Podolski said there were more than 30,000 people from Cologne at the match, where he won one of his two Bundesliga titles.

“That’s when you know where you home is, and that you’ve done a lot of good, also off the pitch,” Podolski said. “That makes me very proud.”

It was a perfect night to say goodbye, and the goal made it almost surreal (Thomas Muller called it “cheesy”).

From Goal.com:

“This is like a great movie,” he told ARD. “We win 1-0 and I score the goal.

“I know I have a left foot that was probably gifted to me by God, or someone up there, and I can always rely on it. I am proud of these last 13 years.”

Feel good hit of the Spring.