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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.

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-2 Sevilla: Gameiro, Vitolo give two-time champs an edge

Shakhtar Donetsk’s Facundo Ferreyra, left, competes for the ball with Sevilla’s Mariano during semifinal first leg of the Europa League soccer match, between FC Shakhtar Donetsk and Sevilla at Arena Lviv stadium in Lviv, western Ukraine, Thursday, April  28, 2016. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
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Vitolo scored a goal then drew a penalty, and Kevin Gameiro converted the chance as Sevilla picked up a pair of road goals in a 2-2 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk on Thursday in the first leg of the clubs’ UEFA Europa League semifinal.

Marlos had a goal and an assist for Shakhtar Donetsk, with Taras Stepanenko scoring Shakhtar’s other goal.

Sevilla has won the last two tournaments, and hosts Thursday’s second leg with an advantage toward reaching a third.

[ MORE: Watch full Premier League match replays ]

Gameiro set up that oh-so-pivotal road goal in the first 6 minutes, sliding the ball to Vitolo for his left-footed finish between the legs of Andriy Pyatov.

But the Ukranians weren’t slow to respond, and Shakhtar netted twice before halftime. First Marlos scored a left-footed of his own from Yaroslav Rakitskiy in the 21st minute, and then Marlos turned provider for Stepanenko’s headed finish in the 35th.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Villarreal strikes late to take first leg on Liverpool in Europa League semis

during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.
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Denis Suarez found Adrian Lopez in the third minute of stoppage time to lift Villarreal to a 1-0 home win over Liverpool in Thursday’s first leg of their UEFA Europa League semifinal.

There wasn’t much enjoyable about the match for either side until late, but Liverpool looked set to head to Anfield in search of a win. Now they’ll need more.

[ MORE: Watch full Premier League match replays ]

The timing was off early for Mexican attacker Jonathan dos Santos and Congolese striker Cedric Bakambu, and Simon Mignolet made a couple collections to get into the flow of the match.

Liverpool answered with a dangerous chance in the fifth minute, but Joe Allen‘s only alley was a pass directly to keeper Sergio Asenjo.

Roberto Soldado knifed a bouncing shot wide of the far post in the 11th minute, and would later curl a shot around Kolo Toure that didn’t finish its dramatic bend inside the field of play.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The Yellow Submarine had the best of possession, but the Reds were stout in defense with the exception of some slips on the wet turf.

Roberto Firmino was the most dangerous Liverpool attacker, saved off the woodwork just over an hour into the match.

There wasn’t much threat coming from either camp before Mignolet made a terrific save on Bakambu in the 87th minute.

And Alberto Moreno sprung a near 60-yard run past the Villarreal back line, but couldn’t put his left-footed blast on net

Liverpool: Tribunal rules record payment due to Burnley in Ings case

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26: Danny Ings of Liverpool fends off Alan Hutton of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Aston Villa at Anfield on September 26, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
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The Premier League has a new compensation record, as Burnley has received close to $12 million for Liverpool’s signing of Danny Ings after a tribunal’s ruling.

Ings, 23, was a transfer rumor mill mainstay but stayed through his contract at Turf Moor, earning the right to go anywhere on a free transfer.

[ MORE: Agbonlahor quits as Villa captain ]

But clubs have to pay compensation when signing players who are under the age of 24, and Burnley will get money from Liverpool.

From the BBC:

Burnley chief executive David Baldwin said: “This is an unprecedented record payment for training compensation and not a transfer fee.

“As the initial fee decided by the committee represents almost double the previous record for a tribunal, this fully justifies our decision to press ahead with what we felt was a fair reflection of the part Burnley played in Danny’s development.”

The Clarets will also receive 20 percent of any sell-on fees should Ings move to another club, and Bournemouth stands to make a small percentage as well. The Cherries sold Ings to Burnley in 2011.

Agbonlahor quits as captain of relegated Aston Villa

Leicester City v Aston Villa - Premier League
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) Gabby Agbonlahor has quit as Aston Villa captain and apologized for his off-field conduct.

The forward was pictured in a newspaper with what look like nitrous oxide – or laughing gas – canisters on the same night that Aston Villa’s relegation was confirmed after losing to Manchester United this month.

Villa announced that Agbonlahor’s suspension from the club has been lifted, while he has been fined.

[ MORE: Alli’s season is over ]

Agbonlahor wrote on his Instagram account: “I am stepping down as club captain with immediate effect, as I do not deserve to carry out such a role anymore … it hurts to have lost it.”

Agbonlahor is Villa’s longest serving current player and their record English Premier League goal-scorer, having netted 73 times since his debut in 2006.