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

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.