Convincing results show La Liga trio ready for UEFA Champions League

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Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid have been on a higher level than the rest of Spain all season, so it’s no surprise the trio put up a set of convinced results in this weekend’s La Liga action. Yet during a winter where each team has shown its flaws, it’s worth asking: Why now? What clicked this weekend that wasn’t in place while Atlético struggled over the last two weeks, Barcelona stumbled against Valencia, and Real Madrid spent January trying to find their scoring touch?

Perhaps it took Spain’s giants seven weeks to shake off the league’s short winter break, but there’s another potential explanation. With UEFA Champions League restarting on Tuesday, all three contenders may be stepping it up their games, hoping to mount a serious challenge for this year’s European Cup.

Barcelona’s leading the way. We talked about their 6-0 result yesterday, but just as important is their return to health. Neymar, out for a month, played in the second half against Rayo Vallecano. Andrés Iniesta appears to be approaching 100 percent. Lionel Messi has hit his stride. The oft-injured Carles Puyol will be available this week, while 34-year-old Xavi Hernández was rested ahead of the team’s trip to Manchester City. When Barcelona walks out at the Etihad on Tuesday, they’ll be as healthy as they’ve been all season.

Atlético also served notice this weekend, posting a 3-0 win on Saturday over visiting Valladolid. Given the three-match losing streak Atleti brought into the match, the win alone was noteworthy, but the fact that Diego Simeone’s team scored twice in the first four minutes hinted at a level of urgency we hadn’t seen over the previous two weeks. If Atlético can reclaim the form that saw them lose only one game between August and January, they’ll also reclaim their status as Champions League dark horses.

Dark horse is a status a club with nine titles can never assume, but with Real Madrid posting a 3-0 win at Getafe on Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti’s team is most certainly a contender. While the coach’s switch to a 4-3-3 in early January initially produced a series of unconvincing( if victorious) results, los Blancos are now playing their best soccer of the season. They’ve joined the cluster of teams who you could see knocking off Bayern Munich, who will still need to be caught on a bad day to have their title defense derailed.

This weekend, all three Spanish contenders looked capable of playing spoilers. Even Atlético, who looked on the verge of regressing to their 2012-13 selves, showed the type of play you’d expect from a Champions League semifinalist. If their recovery is real, La Liga has three teams who can realistically expect to be alive come the quarterfinals.

WATCH: Rashford sends arrow home to put Man Utd up two

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Seemingly everything he touches turns to gold goals.

Marcus Rashford scored twice in the first 17 minutes of Wednesday’s League Cup third round match versus Burton Albion at Old Trafford, and the second was a beaut.

[ MORE: Everton fines Rooney ]

It was a classy little chipped finish that made it 1-0, but Rashford unleashed from outside the 18 to beat a flying goalkeeper and put a jewel on the scoreboard.

Well, not really a jewel, but picture that “2” as real shiny.

Rashford now has five goals in eight matches for Manchester United this season, and 22 in 78 for his career. He turns 20 next month, which is nice.

Everton fines Rooney two weeks’ wages

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Wayne Rooney‘s move back to Everton was always going to benefit the Merseyside community, though it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Everton has fined Rooney two weeks’ wages following his admission earlier this week to a drunk driving charge.

[ MORE: PL Player Power Rankings ]

According to the BBC, “Everton intend to give the entire sum – thought to be about £300,000 – to local projects through their Everton in the Community scheme.”

At a Monday court date, Rooney learned that he would not be allowed to drive for two years. He was also fined and assigned 100 hours of community service.

Rooney has two goals and an assist in nine appearances, all starts, for the struggling Toffees. He is not in the 18 for Everton’s third round League Cup tie versus Sunderland on Wednesday.

LIVE: Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal enter League Cup

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Five more League Cup third round games take place on Wednesday with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton all hosting lower-league opponents.

[ LIVE: Latest League Cup scores ] 

Holders Man United welcome Burton Albion to Old Trafford, while Arsenal host Doncaster Rovers, Chelsea welcome Nottingham Forest to Stamford Bridge, Everton clash with recently relegated Sunderland and Manchester City head to West Brom.

On Tuesday five Premier League teams were knocked out of the competition as Liverpool lost at Leicester City, Stoke were upset at Bristol City, Burnley lost to Leeds United on penalty kicks, Brighton lost at Bournemouth and Huddersfield were knocked out by Crystal Palace.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s League Cup roundup ]

Below is the full schedule for Wednesday’s League Cup games with all games kicking off at 2:45 p.m. ET unless otherwise stated.

Click on the link above for live updates on all five games, while the fourth-round draw takes place after the games have finished.


Wednesday’s League Cup schedule

Arsenal vs. Doncaster Rovers
Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest
Everton vs. Sunderland
Manchester United vs. Burton Albion – 3 p.m. ET
West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester City – 3 p.m. ET

Men In Blazers podcast: Chelsea-Arsenal, Rooney, Pep

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo break down Arsenal’s draw at Chelsea, Wazza’s return to Old Trafford, and a robotic performance from Pep’s City side. Plus, a musical number at the end.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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