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

UCL wrap: Napoli, Celtic win big; Nwakaeme volleys beauty (video)

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A day after three of five road sides felt good with their work in first legs of the UEFA Champions League playoff round, it was the hosts time to celebrate good results.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL first legs ]

Home sides in Italy, Scotland, Greece, and Israel posted wins. Spanish side Sevilla did manage a road win.

Napoli 2-0 Nice

Chances and even possession was at a premium for the visitors, and Napoli found its breakthrough from one of the more overlooked gems in the world. Dries Mertens scored in the first half, his sixth career UCL goal, and Jorginho converted a second half penalty to give Napoli a foot in the group stage.

Adding insult was a pair of red cards in the 80th minute, the first to Vincent Koziello for a dangerous tackle (it was a harsh call) and Alassane Plea was given a second yellow for protesting the sending off.

Mertens’ goal was smooth as silk:

Celtic 5-0 Astana

A pair of Scott Sinclair goals joined an Astana own goal as the Bhoys went a long way towards avoiding the tight tie that made the last round tricky.

Olympiacos 2-1 Rijeka

Heber gave the visitors a halftime lead in the 42nd minute, but Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe equalized in the 66th minute to minimize the damage for Olympiacos, who would go on to win.

Istanbul Basaksehir 1-2 Sevilla

Remember Eljero Elia? The Dutchman’s on his eighth club and third since leaving Southampton after just a half season, but he’s given his Turkish side hope against mighty Sevilla after Sergio Escudero gave the Spanish side an early lead and Wissam Ben Yedder nabbed the winner.

Hapoel Be’er Sheva 2-1 Maribor

Goals from Anthony Nwakaeme and Shir Tzedek boosted the Israeli hosts to a come-from-behind win.

In the case of the former, it was a beauty:

Brighton breaks transfer record (again) with Izquierdo (video)

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Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Brighton and Hove Albion have broken its transfer record.

A week after setting a new club standard with the signing of Davy Propper from PSV Eindhoven, the Gulls have signed electric Colombian attacker Jose Izquierdo from Club Brugge for over $15 million.

[ MORE: Matuidi medical at Juve ]

Izquierdo averaged a goal every other match for Brugge last season and broke through to the Colombian national team with two caps this summer, scoring in a friendly against Cameroon.

With Propper and Izquierdo, manager Chris Hughton has two more playmakers who can better set the table for a strike corps that has been questioned at the Premier League level.

Brighton lost to Man City 2-0 on Saturday and next faces Leicester City at King Power Stadium.

Matuidi having a medical at Juventus ahead of move from PSG

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Blaise Matuidi was having a medical at Juventus on Wednesday ahead of a potential move to the Serie A club.

Juventus said that Matuidi arrived at Turin airport in the afternoon and was undergoing tests.

Juventus will reportedly pay PSG 20 million euros ($23 million) plus bonuses for the 30-year-old Matuidi, who had a year left on his contract with the French club.

[ MORE: Wenger issues updates on Alexis, Ox, Wilshere ]

PSG, which is also trying to balance the books after buying Neymar for 222 million euros, could not afford to lose Matuidi on a free transfer.

Matuidi played nearly 300 games for PSG in all competitions after joining from Saint-Etienne in 2011.

After a difficult first season, he quickly became an integral part of the team for successive managers, Carlo Ancelotti and Laurent Blanc.

He flourished from a largely defensive midfielder to a robust, tireless runner with an eye for goal and an enormous work-rate.

Overcoming some technical deficiencies in his game, Matuidi gradually earned himself a place in the France lineup and became a key player at the 2014 World Cup and last year’s European Championship.

At the beginning of last season, after Blanc was fired and replaced by Unai Emery, he expressed a desire to leave PSG and already wanted to join Juventus. But the club blocked his move, considering him too important to leave, and he stayed for another season.

Altogether, Matuidi has scored 33 goals for PSG in 295 appearances, becoming a well-respected player among fans and teammates alike, often taking a public stance when others would not and when tensions arose within the club.

In all, Matuidi has won four league titles, three French Cups and four League Cups with PSG.

This story has been corrected to show that Neymar’s fee was 222 million euros, not 220 million euros.

Furious Cristiano Ronaldo responds to five-game ban

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Cristiano Ronaldo has hit out at the Spanish soccer federation after his five game ban for pushing a referee in the back was upheld.

Ronaldo, 32, pushed the ref after he was shown a second yellow card in Real Madrid’s 3-1 win in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup at Barcelona on Sunday.

It capped an eventful El Clasico for Ronaldo who arrived in the second half as a sub, then scored a stunner to put Real 2-1 up.

He received his first yellow for taking off his shirt and holding it up to the Nou Camp crowd to mock Lionel Messi for doing the same in a goal celebration in April at the Santiago Bernabeu. Ronaldo then received a second yellow for going down in the box under a challenge.

In an Instagram post the Real Madrid forward had the following to say about the decision which sees him banned for the second leg ag the Bernabeu on Wednesday as well as Real’s next four games.

“It seems to me exaggerated and ridiculous, this is called persecution.”