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.

Eibar routs Betis 5-0 to snap 8-game winless streak in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Eibar routed 10-man Real Betis 5-0 in the Spanish league on Monday, ending an eight-match winless streak in all competitions.

Eibar hadn’t won since Sept. 15. It had lost six of its eight matches since then.

[ MORE: Brighton, Stoke finish level after Izquierdo’s second-half finish ]

The hosts got on the board with an own goal by Betis defender Jordi Amat just six minutes in, and midfielder Gonzalo Escalante scored with a header near halftime.

Striker Charles Dias scored twice in the second half, and Sergi Enrich closed the scoring in front of less than 5,000 fans at Ipurua Stadium.

“We deserved a victory like this to help us regain our confidence,” Enrich said.

Betis played with 10 men from the 55th as Aissa Mandi was red-carded for the foul that prompted a penalty kick converted by Dias.

“It was difficult to recover after we went a man down and they scored the third goal,” Betis midfielder Joaquin Sanchez said.

Eibar remained 17th in the 20-team standings, just outside the relegation zone.

Betis, winless in three matches, dropped to ninth place.

Barcelona leads by four points over second-place Valencia.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Pogba believes Man United can win Premier League if squad stays fit

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There’s no doubt that on paper Manchester United has all the workings of a Premier League contender, and Paul Pogba certainly agrees.

[ MORE: Brighton, Stoke settle for draw in back-and-forth affair ]

The influential midfielder made his return to the Red Devils lineup this weekend in United’s 4-1 beatdown of Newcastle, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.

With Jose Mourinho’s squad finally getting healthy, Pogba believes that the sky is the limit for his side as they look to chase down league leaders and cross-town rivals Manchester City.

“To win the league we need all our players,” Pogba told MUTV. “When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team.

“Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Pogba’s presence was certainly missed in his absence, and he wasted no time in making an impact upon his return, scoring a goal and adding an assist against the Magpies.

The French international also spoke about his struggles last season with several minor injuries, but he’s hoping to remain in his United side for the rest of the 2017/18 campaign.

“Most of last season I had injuries but small ones. You just have to recover well because the Premier League is different to Italy — it’s more intense and you just have to think about recovery, then you have more games. Otherwise, I just feel good, just to come back.

“I’ve trained very hard to come back fit. The season is really long so we have to be fit — not only me but all the players. To come back, to play again, to see Old Trafford, to see the fans again, to score at Old Trafford on my comeback, I feel blessed. But we had to win — that was the most important thing.”

Red Bulls freestyler shows off dribbling skills… on a treadmill (Video)

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Players from around the world display their skills on social media on a regular basis, but they’re usually on a soccer field or blacktop when they do so.

[ MORE: Almiron wins MLS Newcomer of the Year, beats out Nikolic, Martinez ]

This New York Red Bulls freestyler had a different interpretation of how he’d show off his ball control on Monday.

DJ Diveny (@djdiveny on Twitter) posted this video — below — across his social media platforms today dribbling a soccer ball on a treadmill, while his colleagues appear to introduce cones at random points as obstacles.

In addition to his talents as a freestyler, Diveny is also a youth coach with Student Athlete Coaching & Consulting, based out of New Jersey.

Again… he’s on a treadmill while doing this. Pretty cool stuff.

Watch below.

Villa: Seeing Pirlo retire showed me that I have to train harder

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New York City FC has quickly become one of Major League Soccer’s most exciting clubs in three short seasons, and a lot of its success can be attributed to be David Villa.

[ MORE: Miguel Almiron named MLS Newcomer of the Year ]

The Spanish international has been with the club since completing a move to MLS in 2014, and has easily been NYCFC’s most important signing since the team’s inception.

Despite boasting an impressive 22 goals in 2017 for Patrick Vieira’s side, Villa knows that his days in MLS are starting to count down after one of the legends of the international game recently announced his retirement.

“[Seeing Andrea Pirlo retire showed me] that I have to train harder every day if I want to continue extending my career. Someday I will leave, as will everyone, it’s a fact of life. But I’m going to fight to make it as late as possible,” Villa told Marca.

Villa, 35, received a one-year extension to his contract in 2017, leaving his future with NYCFC up in the air beyond next season.

Additionally, the forward says that he constantly receives positive feedback about MLS and he knows that there is a lot of interest from players outside the United States in the developing league.

“Really, quite a few [have reached out],” he said. “The MLS is growing a lot and is having more and more global impact. Many have called me and are interested in what’s going on here.”