Spain: Barcelona, Real Madrid take advantage of Atlético’s slip, leaving three tied on points atop La Liga

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This is what everybody’s been waiting for. During those improbable opening months when they played beyond their talent. During a winter that’s seen Atleti claim La Liga’s top spot, obliging onlookers to mention them along side Barcelona and Real Madrid. During all those moments when people were forced to reconsider their instincts about Atlético Madrid. After 22 rounds, Diego Simeone’s team had almost dispelled the notion they were the third of two title contenders.

Then came the last five days. Mid-week at Real Madrid, the Colchoneros were undone by two own goals – unfortunate deflections that left Simeone’s side down three ahead of the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal. Though it was only their second loss in all-competitions this season, the result was enough to leave Atlético with little realistic chance of defending their Copa title.

On Saturday, it got even worse. During a trip to Almería that should have been near-automatic three points, Atlético were held to one shot on goal. Their defense nearly overcame that shortcoming, but with 80th minute goal from Verza, the home side finally had their unlikely lead. When the Almería midfielder doubled his team’s lead from the spot six minutes later, an Atlético side that’d just seen their goalkeeper sent off was destined for their second straight loss.

If the defeat at the Bernabéu was disappointing, Saturday’s loss was unnerving. Against El Real, the team could point to a tough opponent, some own goal misfortune, debatable refereeing and an early red card as a series of unfortunate events. On Saturday, the only unfortunate thing was Atlético’s play. In the heat of a three-team title race, Atleti may have lost three points they can’t afford to give up.

Of course, we won’t know until the end of the season, but should Atlético end up just short of their first title in 18 years, it will be hard to avoid looking at the Almería result without saying “they knew they had to win that game.”

Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the 100-point hypothesis

source: APFor Atlético to pay for the Almería slip, La Liga will have to maintain the type of title race that demands perfection. Toward that end, one hundred points has been the implicit target all season, yet after recent slips by Barcelona and Atleti, no team remains on track for that plateau. With 57 points through 23 rounds, all three title contenders are on course to finish with 94 points.

This weekend, however, both Barcelona and Real Madrid finally looked capable of resuming a 100-point pace. Barcelona, with a potentially tricky trip to the Sanchez Pizjuan, extended Sevilla’s newfound slump. Responding to an early goal from Alberto Moreno, Barça scored three times before the hour, with Lionel Messi’s double leading the Blaugrana to a 4-1 win. Thanks to their league-leading goal difference, Barcelona’s reclaimed first place.

Real Madrid put in their own four-star performance on Saturday, albeit with slightly more drama against visiting Villarreal. Goals by Gareth Bale (7′), Karim Benzema (25′), and Jesé (64′, starting for the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo) had the Merengues up 3-1 late. Giovani Dos Santos, however, brought the Yellow Submarine back into the match, burying a 27-yard free kick just inside Diego López’s right post, giving the Bernabéu reason to pause. Seven minutes later, however, when Benzema found his second of the match, Real Madrid had their final margin, securing the 4-2 win that moved them into second on goal difference.

Amid recent, flawed form, Barcelona and Real Madrid each put in one of their most impressive performances of the new calendar year. Whereas Barcelona looked vulnerable mid-week against Real Sociedad and were unable to execute in the final third, Sunday saw them rout a struggling but ultimately decent Sevilla. This was old Barcelona; or, at least, the Barcelona of fall.

And Real Madrid, who have struggled to score against non-Real Betis teams with their new 4-3-3, final broke through against a quality opponent. There was no own goals. there were no early red cards. They put up four against a Villarreal side still harboring hopes of a Champions League return.

La Liga’s leaders have slowed down, but after convincing weekend results, Barcelona and El Real may be ready to resume an unforgiving pace. After their worst week of the season, Atlético need to prove they can keep up.

Elsewhere

  • Espanyol 1, Granada 0 – Javier Aguirre’s team overcame the 30th minute dismissal of Víctor Álvarez thanks to Héctor Moreno’s late winner, sending Granada to their third straight loss.
  • Valencia 5, Real Betis 0 – What slim hope Real Betis had after changing coaches last month undoubtedly dissipated at the Mestalla, where two goals from Paco Alcácer help keep the verdiblancos 10 points from safety.
  • Rayo Vallecano 4, Málaga 1 – Unable to covert last week’s win at Sevilla into momentum, Málaga were throttled in Madrid, their 10-man side trailing by four goals after 62 minutes . The Andalusians now sit 17th, three points from the drop.
  • Osasuna 2, Getafe 0 – Oriel Riera’s sixth minute opener helped Osasuna end a two-game slide, with Roberto Torres’s late insurance leaving Getafe winless since Dec. 17.
  • Valladolid 2, Elche 2 – Two late goals by Osorio salvaged a draw for the hosts after Coro and Manu del Moral had the visitors up two after 65 minutes.
  • Real Sociedad 0, Levante 0 – La Real miss their chance to make up ground on sixth place Villarreal, with seven saves from Keylor Navas giving Levante their second straight 0-0 result.

Monday
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Club

Others
Almería 2, Atlético Madrid 0
Sevilla 1, Barcelona 4
Real Madrid 4, Villarreal 2

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 23 18 3 2 63 17 46 10-0-1 8-3-1 57
Real Madrid 23 18 3 2 65 24 41 10-0-1 8-3-1 57
Atlético Madrid 23 18 3 2 56 16 40 10-2-0 8-1-2 57
Athletic 22 13 4 5 42 28 14 9-3-0 4-1-5 43
Villarreal 23 12 4 7 44 27 17 7-3-2 5-1-5 40
Real Sociedad 23 10 7 6 42 34 8 7-3-1 3-4-5 37
Sevilla 23 8 7 8 42 41 1 5-2-4 3-5-4 31
Valencia 23 9 4 10 36 35 1 6-2-4 3-2-6 31
Espanyol 23 8 5 10 26 29 -3 6-2-4 2-3-6 29
Levante 23 7 8 8 22 30 -8 3-5-3 4-3-5 29
Celta Vigo 22 7 4 11 29 35 -6 3-4-4 4-0-7 25
Elche 23 6 7 10 22 34 -12 4-3-5 2-4-5 25
Getafe 23 7 4 12 22 36 -14 4-4-4 3-0-8 25
Osasuna 23 7 4 12 21 37 -16 4-2-5 3-2-7 25
Almería 23 7 4 12 24 41 -17 4-3-4 3-1-8 25
Málaga 23 6 6 11 23 33 -10 5-1-5 1-5-6 24
Granada 23 7 3 13 20 30 -10 3-1-8 4-2-5 24
Valladolid 23 4 9 10 26 39 -13 3-5-3 1-4-7 21
Rayo Vallecano 23 6 2 15 25 52 -27 3-0-8 3-2-7 20
Betis 23 3 5 15 20 52 -32 3-3-6 0-2-9 14

LIVE, UCL – Sevilla vs. Man United, Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma

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Jose Mourinho has created a splash this morning by benching Paul Pogba despite utilizing a 3-man central midfield formation as Manchester United heads to Spain to take on Sevilla in their Champions League Round of 16 first leg meeting.

Pogba was left out of Saturday’s win over Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup due to illness, but having made the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad, it seems his omission is instead due to tactical reasons. 21-year-old academy product Scott McTominay starts in Pogba’s place alongside Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, with the Frenchman on the bench among the substitutes.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores

The decision is surprising given Manchester United’s 16-point deficit in the Premier League table as they trail runaway favorites Manchester City, leaving the Champions League as the best competition remaining that the Red Devils have a shot to win.

Up front for Manchester United, Alexis Sanchez carries the creative load along with Juan Mata, with both supporting Romelu Lukaku at the striker position. Meanwhile, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof continue to work as the central defensive partnership, while Antonio Valencia captains the side as full-back, mirrored by Ashley Young on the other edge.

In the other matchup, Roma heads to the Ukraine to take on Shakhtar Donetsk, who finished 2nd in Group F three points behind Manchester City. The Ukranian side has only just returned from its winter break, with just a single game played since December 10th.

Roma, meanwhile, has pulled itself out of a rut just in time for the return of Champions League play, with three straight Serie A wins coming on the heels of a five-match winless run. They have scored eight goals over those three wins, with a pair of road clean sheets among the group. 20-year-old Turkish winger Cengiz Under is on fire over the win streak, scoring four goals over that span.


Today’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 schedule

Sevilla vs. Manchester United – 2:45 p.m. ET
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Roma – 2:45 p.m. ET

Reports: Mourinho to leave Paul Pogba out of Champions League lineup

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According to multiple reports across England, including the BBC, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is ready to leave Paul Pogba out of his starting lineup for Wednesday’s Champions League match against Sevilla despite utilizing a 4-3-3 formation with three central midfielders.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The reports state that Pogba will be left on the bench in favor of youngster Scott McTominay, who will start alongside Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. Mourinho has spoken highly of McTominay recently, saying three days ago, “I think Scott deserves more than what he is getting.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s this kind of kid profile: a normal haircut, no tattoos, no big cars, no big watches, humble kid, arrive in the club when he was nine or 10,” Mourinho said in what many perceived to be a thinly veiled slap at Pogba.

Mourinho has held back from publicly criticizing his $125 million midfielder in the media, but his actions on the field suggest otherwise. The 24-year-old has failed to record 90 minutes in three straight Premier League matches, seeing his manager yank him before the full-time whistle in two and failing to make the starting lineup in the other, leaving many to speculate a rift between the two.

The decision is especially surprising given Juan Mata‘s comments earlier Wednesday that suggested Manchester United is prioritizing the Champions League, given their 16-point deficit to Manchester City in the Premier League table.

Pogba missed the 2-0 FA Cup win over Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness, but it’s hard to imagine that four days later that keeps the French superstar on the bench, especially given his ability to make the trip to Sevilla with the matchday squad.

Leicester City settles Financial Fair Play dispute with Football League

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Leicester City will owe the Football League a reduced fine after coming to an agreement with the English lower-league governing body over a dispute regarding the 2013/14 season.

The Foxes, who won the Championship that season and were promoted to the Premier League, were handed an official breach of Financial Fair Play rules after accruing a loss exceeding the allowed $11 million amount. However, Leicester City argued that the deficit was due to “allowable” amounts regarding promotion and academy costs.

After talks between the two parties, the EFL announced Leicester City will owe a reduced amount of $4.33 million. They could have owed up to $18 million, the differential between the allowed amount and their actual posted loss of $20.8 million.

In an official release, the EFL announced, “The EFL acknowledges that [Leicester City] did not make any deliberate attempt to infringe the Rules or to deceive and that the dispute arose out of genuine differences of interpretation of the Rules between the parties.”

After initially receiving word of the notice back in 2014, the Foxes had legally challenged the fine, but that had been put on hold after litigation began in 2015 between the EFL and Queens Park Rangers for a similar dispute. Bournemouth was also fined after incurring a significant loss in their 2014/15 promotion season. Teams that breach rules but are not promoted face transfer bans, such as Fulham, Bolton, and Nottingham Forest received through the 2014/15 season.

Who’s to blame? A closer look at Chelsea’s blunder late vs. Barcelona

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As our very own Joe Prince-Wright explained yesterday in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, Antonio Conte could not have set his team up better for success at Stamford Bridge.

And yet, they walked away from the first leg with a disappointing result, one that could set up Barcelona with the advantage as they head to the Camp Nou in two weeks time.

So where did it all go wrong? That pass from Andreas Christensen, obviously – the one that gifted Lionel Messi a late goal. But is Christensen to blame? Or were there other culprits?

Clearly, the pass was ill-advised. Christensen sends the ball across his own box parallel to the goal mouth, which Andreas Iniesta easily pilfers and sends to Messi for his first goal against Chelsea. It was a pass they teach 7-year-olds not to make, one that even the youngest of dedicated soccer players knows to avoid.

Christensen makes an easy target, given that he is just 21 years old, has only just recently earned his way into the Blues starting lineup, and was the most obvious culprit having made the fateful pass.

However, upon closer inspection, it may not have even been meant to reach the far side of the field.

Christensen’s exasperated reaction suggests the pass was likely intended for Cesc Fabregas who sat at the top of the box under little pressure. Christensen was closed down on the far touchline with little room to operate, and his outlet to Fabregas in the middle of the field was a good option, even if the general idea of a pass in that direction is usually frowned upon. However, Christensen’s pass was just slightly behind Fabregas, and the Spaniard ultimately decided to let the ball go instead of chasing it down, leaving it for a less populated area of the field.

Unfortunately, with his back turned to the eventual destination of the pass, Fabregas was unaware that Iniesta had anticipated its flight path and was already making a run to steal the ball. When the veteran Barcelona midfielder reached the ball, he was challenged by a sliding Cesar Azpilicueta, who completely whiffed. While Christensen and Fabregas were culpable of putting the team in a dangerous situation, Azpilicueta’s tackle was an abomination. Azpilicueta actually reached the ball first, but inexplicably failed to make contact with the ball, allowing Iniesta to easily evade the slide and still take charge of the ball.

Andreas Christensen is the clear perpetrator, but Fabregas and Azpilicueta both contributed negatively to the situation, leaving Chelsea at a slight disadvantage heading into a hostile environment despite Antonio Conte’s best efforts. Sadly, Conte will be the one to shoulder the accountability at the end of the season if Chelsea goes out of the Champions League, even though he received top marks for the match, and his players let him down.