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Spain roundup: All of a sudden, Real Madrid’s in total control

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Last month, when Real Madrid pulled itself back into Spain’s title race, the main obstacle separating the team from the favorite’s position with the form of their competition. Barcelona was still plugging away at the top of the league, having only once all season. Atlético were right there, with only goal difference keeping them from La Liga’s top spot. Real Madrid could get as hot as they wanted, but unless Barcelona and Atlético began stumbling, they had no chance of claiming the title. And based on the records each team carried into January, there was little evidence saying their pace would slow.

There was little evidence besides history, that is. At one point, both Barça and Atlético were 16-1-1, having claimed 49 of a possible 54 points. In hindsight, we should have seen those rates as admirable but completely unsustainable. Where Barcelona and Atlético really going to navigate the back halves of their seasons — when the Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League heat up — claiming 2.7 points per game? Leaving both teams on pace to beat the Primera record of 100 points in a season?

After this weekend’s action, that assumption of greatness looks incredibly naive, particularly after results against Real Sociedad and Osasuna allowed the left for dead Merengues to claim first place. Coming off their Champions League victory at Manchester City, Barcelona was outplayed in San Sebastián on Saturday, losing 3-1. Atlético did the feat one worse on Sunday, losing at Osasuna, giving Real Madrid sole possession of first place thanks to its 3-0 win against Elche.

The win was more workmanlike that spectacular, but on a weekend when Carlo Ancelotti’s team distanced themselves from their competition, the virtues of the workmanlike were never so evident. With goals from Aiser Illarramendi, Gareth Bale, and Isco, El Real enjoyed a leisurely Saturday against the Segunda’s reigning champions, with the quality of Bale and Isco’s tallies underscoring the ever-present potential of Real’s potent attack.

“I am satisfied because we didn’t concede,” was Ancelotti’s assessment, the Real Madrid head coach maintaining perspective ahead of a mid-week Champions League trip to Schalke.  “Our play could have been better but at this stage of the season we need to be solid and we were.”

With Barcelona kicking off later against Real Sociedad, that solid performance would surely only be good enough for a temporary hold on first place. Though they stood three points clear that the final whistle, a Barça victory at Real Sociedad would vault the defending champions back to the top of the table.

But at a venue they haven’t won at since 2007, Barcelona again stumbled. Making six changes from the team that won in Manchester, Gerardo Martino saw his team go down to an early Alex Song own goal. Lionel Messi’s 14th goal of the season brought Barça even, but second half scores from Antoine Griezmann (his 15th of the season) and David Zurutuza punished a lackluster Blaugrana, with La Real claiming a well deserved two-goal victory.

“Real (Sociedad) deserved to win,” Martino confessed afterward, eventually rueing his reluctance to change his tactics. “I didn’t make the correct reading of the game. The decision not to change was also a mistake.”

As shocking as that result was, Atlético’s Sunday performance became the weekend’s biggest surprise. Allowing first half goals to Alvaro Cejudo, Emiliano Armenteros, and Roberto Torres, Diego Simeone’s team went into half time down three. After 15 minutes contemplation on whether the poor form (three-match losing streak earlier this month) had returned, the Colchoneros were unable to make a dent in the second half, leaving the field to their fourth lopsided loss in three weeks.

“Osasuna played a great game,” according to Atlético left back Filipe Luis, who returned from injury on Sunday. “You can’t take anything away from them. They beat us in every facet of the match.”

The loss capped a perfect weekend for Real Madrid. Though the team’s winter form always made a win against Elche likely, Ancelotti’s men couldn’t have foreseen stumbles from both Barcelona and Atlético. But with fortune now extending beyond their own performances, also blessing those trying to take points from their rivals, los Blancos are now in control of La Liga’s title race.

And right now, there’s little doubt: They are the best team in Spain.

Elsewhere

  • Valladolid 1, Levante 1 – Javi Guerra’s second half goal salvaged an important point for Valladolid, who stay within three points of Málaga for the last spot above the drop.
  • Celta Vigo 1, Getafe 1 – A second yellow to Lisandro López in the 52nd minute left a shorthanded Getafe to defending their 1-0 lead, but a 59th minute goal from Rafinha allowed Luis Enrique’s team to extend their unbeaten run to five.
  • Almería 0, Málaga 0 – Bernd Schuster’s team doubled their hosts’ shot total but were left empty-handed after a game where the two teams combined for four shots on goal.
  • Rayo Vallecano 0, Sevilla 1 – Coke’s 57th minute goal gave Sevilla full points from a match where they held only 29 percent possession but limited their hosts to one shot on goal.
  • Real Betis 0, Athletic Club 2 – Athletic maintain their four-point lead on fifth after two Betis red cards left the league’s last place club  little change to pull back Iker Munain’s opener. Guillermo’s late insurance leaves the verdiblancos 11 points from safety.
  • Valencia 2, Granada 1 – Rubén Vezo’s 91st minute winner extends Los Che’s unbeaten run to seven, handing Granada their fourth loss in five.

Monday
Espanyol vs. Villarreal

Others
Real Madrid 3, Elche 0
Real Sociedad 3, Barcelona 1
Osasuna 3, Atlético Madrid 0

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Real Madrid 25 20 3 2 71 24 47 11-0-1 9-3-1 63
Barcelona 25 19 3 3 70 20 50 11-0-1 8-3-2 60
Atlético Madrid 25 19 3 3 59 19 40 11-2-0 8-1-3 60
Athletic 25 14 5 6 45 30 15 9-3-1 5-2-5 47
Real Sociedad 25 12 7 6 46 35 11 8-3-1 4-4-5 43
Villarreal 24 12 4 8 44 29 15 7-3-3 5-1-5 40
Valencia 25 10 5 10 38 36 2 7-2-4 3-3-6 35
Sevilla 25 9 8 8 43 41 2 5-3-4 4-5-4 35
Levante 25 8 9 8 24 31 -7 4-5-3 4-4-5 33
Espanyol 24 9 5 10 28 30 -2 6-2-4 3-3-6 32
Celta Vigo 25 8 6 11 32 36 -4 3-6-4 5-0-7 30
Osasuna 25 8 5 12 24 37 -13 5-2-5 3-3-7 29
Granada 25 8 3 14 22 32 -10 4-1-8 4-2-6 27
Elche 25 6 8 11 22 37 -15 4-4-5 2-4-6 26
Getafe 25 7 5 13 23 40 -17 4-4-5 3-1-8 26
Almería 25 7 5 13 24 42 -18 4-4-4 3-1-9 26
Málaga 25 6 7 12 23 34 -11 5-1-6 1-6-6 25
Valladolid 25 4 10 11 27 43 -16 3-6-3 1-4-8 22
Rayo Vallecano 25 6 2 17 25 59 -34 3-0-9 3-2-8 20
Betis 25 3 5 17 20 55 -35 3-3-7 0-2-10 14

Pellegrini looks to road record before UCL second leg at the Bernabeu

during a training session ahead of the UEFA Champions League Semi Final Second Leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Academy Training Ground on May 3, 2016 in Manchester, England.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Gael Clichy says Manchester City wants to make history on the road at the Bernabeu, and his manager is hoping to rely on a shorter-term vision of the past to guide them there.

[ PL PLAYBACK: What does Leicester’s title say for the future? ]

Manuel Pellegrini and his club enter Wednesday’s match at the Bernabeu with an impressive road mark in the UEFA Champions League and the advantage of not having allowed a road goal in a 0-0 first leg at the Etihad Stadium.

From MCFC.com:

“This team in three seasons has done very well away – last season we beat Roma in Rome and Bayern away,” Manuel said.

“This season, especially in the quarters we had a very good draw against PSG and we continued. We beat Sevilla, Kyiv and Borussia Monchengladbach.”

Yaya Toure returns and has plenty of familiarity with Real Madrid, having won two La Liga titles and a Champions League title with Barcelona between 2007-10.

David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta are out for City.

Premier League Playback: What does Leicester’s title win mean for PL’s future?

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They did it. They actually did it.

Leicester City, the 5000-1 shots to win the Premier League, won the 2015-16 title on Monday and it’s been one big party in the Midlands city ever since.

[ MORE: Leicester news after PL win ] 

Following the initial euphoria questions such as “what does this mean for the future of the Premier League?” have now arisen. Was this a fluke, a one off we will never see again? Was it down to so many big boys going through transitional periods at the same time and creating a “perfect storm” for somebody else to prevail? Perhaps. But maybe, just maybe, this Cinderella story is reinforcing the growing parity levels in the PL.

Up until recently many journalists and pundits (including myself) here in England didn’t believe Leicester could get this done. The established giants getting over the line time and time again have meant that there’s hasn’t been a first-time top-flight winner since 1978 when Nottingham Forest prevailed. Logic told everyone that Leicester couldn’t do this.

[ VIDEO: Leicester players celebrate ]  

Now, though, it’s all changing. Everyone is being forced to rethink what is believable. What Leicester has done has given belief to the rest of the Premier League that they can challenge the big boys.For the time being the perennial powerhouses have lost their fear factor, that indestructible aura which held them in such good stead for so long.

It shall return, right? Hang on. What if doesn’t? Those are the kind of questions Leicester’s success has produced.

Certain bookmakers will no longer be offering odds of more than 1,000-1 for teams to win the PL title. Newly promoted Burnley were listed at 5000-1 on Monday after being promoted but now their odds have been slashed to 1000-1 and given the events of this season there will be plenty who will put a fiver on that. Why not? Lightning can struck twice…

[ MORE: Story of Leicester’s season, game-by-game ]

It has, briefly, in the past as Nottingham Forest and Derby County — ironically very similar sized cities located very close to Leicester in England’s East Midlands — both pulled off remarkable title wins in the 1970s. One manager, Brian Clough, masterminded those triumphs and even though you had giants of the game in Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal around then, this was before the days of the mega-rich clubs owned by wealthy foreign investors.

The achievements of Derby and Forest were fantastic and are widely lauded to this day, especially as Forest went on to win the European Cup, twice, during that purple patch.
Will Leicester follow suit? Can they even dare to dream of that?

Manager Claudio Ranieri has only set a top 10 target for next season and doesn’t believe his team will repeat their title win. Then again, this is the bloke who was talking about only focusing on survival when Leicester was clear at the top of the PL in January…

“We want to continue to build,” he told Sky Sports’ Rob Dorsett. “When I came here, the project was to build a very good foundation and slowly, slowly to grow up together in three to four years to fight for the Europa League and slowly come to fight for the Champions League.”

They’ve reached the UCL and won the PL in his first season in charge. The goalposts have moved considerably.

We will watch on with intrigue this summer as the big boys dust themselves off, ready their check books and aim to blast the less powerful clubs to one side once and for all. The real difference now is that even if they spend big, it won’t be easy to widen the gap once more. The PL is without financial restrictions a la the salary cap we see in American sports and even with financial fair play rules limiting the expenditure on wages, the big boys can still pretty much spend whatever they want.

[ VIDEO: Fans react in Leicester to winning the PL

The problem is, they’ve been spending money lazily and they seem to have given up on recruiting talent from lower levels and giving younger players or second chancers, a chance. Leicester, and others, have been smart in how they’ve spent their money and the Foxes’ squad cost just $79 million to assemble in transfer fees. Manchester City’s squad cost $606 million to put together in transfer fees alone. Not to mention that Leicester is in the bottom five of wages paid, their success has proven that it’s not all about money. Which is hugely refreshing with plenty of cynics out there believing only the “super clubs” can succeed.

Premier League Schedule – Week 36

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 1-0 Norwich Recap, watch here
Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham Recap, watch here
Everton 2-1 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Man Utd 1-1 Leicester Recap, watch here
Newcastle 1-0 Palace Recap, watch here
Saints 4-2 Man City Recap, watch here
Stoke 1-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Swansea 3-1 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Watford 3-2 A. Villa Recap, watch here
WBA 0-3 West Ham Recap, watch here

Leicester will net a cash windfall from the PL alone of $36 million in a merit payment for winning the title. On top of the equal share of TV money, $81 million, and facility fees, $21 million, the Foxes will bring in $150 million from TV money and award fees alone this season.

Next season their revenue will continue skyrocket with UCL money, commercial revenue, sponsorship and increased TV revenue from being among Europe’s elite. In 2014-15 English clubs made $38 million each despite not advancing past the UCL’s Round of 16 and Deloitte, which ranks the top 20 richest teams in the world based on their revenue in their rich list, believes Leicester will be among their top 20 clubs next year.

The Foxes are now with the big boys, just 12 months after it seemed like they were going to be relegated from the PL. It is a remarkable story.

[ MORE: The day Leicester (pretty much) won the PL ]

This huge cash injection — as Ranieri has stated numerous time recently — means that they don’t need to sell their best players to be financially sound. The same can be said for the other small to medium teams in the PL. They can afford to pay higher wages to their players and in Leicester’s case, their owner is a Thai billionaire who can pump plenty more money in. That’s the game changer here. Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N'Golo Kante will be chased by bigger, wealthier clubs this summer but if Leicester doesn’t want to sell, they don’t need to.

In an era where other PL clubs are only starting to begin to explore the force of their improved financial strength, Leicester rolls up and does this. They’ve made the most of a season of struggle for the big boys and given everyone else hope that maybe this season isn’t just a one off. Maybe the landscape of the Premier League really is changing.

Fans of the likes of Swansea, Southampton, Stoke, Crystal Palace, Everton and West Ham will be publicly lauding Leicester’s achievements and rightly so. Most of those teams are of a comparable size or if not bigger in terms of fanbase, resources and historical stature. But behind closed doors many fans of those teams will be saying: “damn, that could’ve been us.”

Chairmen of those clubs will be downplaying their answers when asked “well, can you ‘do a Leicester next season?'” because it would be foolish to suggest anything like this will happen again. However, don’t overlook a glint of envy in their eyes. Every PL club will now be hoping they can ‘pull off a Leicester.’

It’s not only in the PL that the rise of the underdog is being talked about. Top European teams in leagues which aren’t as competitive from top to bottom are getting worried, very worried, about the strength of the PL. The president of La Liga, Javier Tebas, recently shared his concern at the upcoming TV cash windfall for PL clubs for the next three-year cycle.

He believes “the Premier League could become the NBA of football” and a league where all the best players automatically flock to, leaving giants such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich scrambling for the rest. We are a long way off Barca and Swansea battling for the same players but it’s getting closer than you think. Take Stoke for example. Bojan? Shaqiri? Afellay? What are they doing there?

Recently I spoke with Stoke’s CEO Tony Scholes about how the PL is changing.

“What Leicester has shown this year is how great this league is,” Scholes said. “On any given day in the Premier League either team can beat the other one. Everyone knows that. That is what makes this league unique. What Leicester have done of course, people were saying that is wasn’t possible anymore, for anyone other than the big six clubs to win the league. Well Leicester have shown it is possible.

“Even West Ham this year have had a great season and might end up in a Champions League place. In many ways West Ham might be more of an indicator of what’s to come in the next few years than Leicester. Next year a few of the bigger clubs will strengthen. We know that. But there’s a great chance that one of the rest of us gets into the Champions League places.”

The signs are there that the playing field is leveling out in the PL.

You can point to Leicester’s title win being lucky or inspired by a greater power at work – many are pointing to 14 one-goal wins as proof of that — but overall it’s not hard to see that the gap between the top and bottom clubs in the PL is closing at a rate of knots

New TV deals kick in next season with domestic and international contracts bringing in roughly $13 billion between 2016-19. The gap will continue to grow smaller as the majority of that money is dished out evenly to each PL club.

That’s the most exciting thing about this. The big boys don’t just seem scared; they’re already on the hunt for who could be the next Leicester.

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.

World Cup winner Luca Toni to play his final match on Sunday

VERONA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 20:  Luca Toni  of Hellas Verona applaud fans after the Serie A match between Hellas Verona FC and AC Chievo Verona at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on February 20, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images)
Photo by Dino Panato/Getty Images
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After 15 clubs and 300-plus goals, Luca Toni is calling it a career.

Saying “Verona made me once again feel like a major player,” Toni released a statement on the Hellas Verona web site.

Toni tied for the Serie A lead in goals last year at the age of 38, and has represented Palermo, Fiorentina and Bayern Munich along the way.

[ MORE: Atleti reaches UEFA Champions League final ]

He was also capped 47 times, scoring 16 goals for Italy and winning the 2006 World Cup.

Toni will play his final match at home against Juventus on Sunday. Verona has been relegated to Serie B, and finishes on the road at Palermo.

Ranieri won’t sign superstars to strengthen Leicester squad

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 03:  Leicester City fans react to Leicester City's Premier League Title Success on May 03, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
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LEICESTER, England (AP) Claudio Ranieri is sticking with Leicester’s title-winning blueprint and said the club won’t be in the market for established, expensive talent to strengthen the Premier League champions.

“We don’t need the superstars,” Ranieri said Tuesday, a day after the trophy was clinched with two games to spare. “I want to improve the squad without big stars, but the right players.”

With a squad that cost less than $80 million to assemble, Leicester completed one of the greatest transformations in sporting history. From being relegation candidates and 5,000-1 outsiders for the title, Leicester won the biggest prize in its 132-year history.

[ MORE: Game-by-game breakdown of title run ]

But it was achieved without the midweek demands of European soccer, which Leicester will have next season after qualifying for the Champions League for the first time.

No wonder, Ranieri is significantly lowering expectations for next season.

“For us it is important to stay in the 10th position around there and try to fight to go into Europe,” Ranieri said at Leicester’s modest training ground.

Leicester’s eye for bargains has won admirers throughout the game.

Top-scorer Jamie Vardy was talent spotted while playing outside England’s four professional leagues four years ago. The striker’s 22 goals this season saw him voted player of the year by the Football Writers’ Association this week.

Riyad Mahrez, who has scored 17 goals and provided 11 assists in the title charge, won the same accolade in a vote by his fellow professionals. The Algeria winger was an unknown when he joined Leicester two years ago from second-tier French side Le Havre for less than 500,000 pounds (then about $820,000).

Ranieri’s biggest task in the summer transfer window could be keeping hold of his players while trying to avoid upsetting the balance of his squad with new recruits.

“It is too early to say we need five, six, seven or eight players,” Ranieri said. “If one of my players says to me I want to go … I try to keep him. I suggest to everybody this is a fantastic club.

“We won the title. We can do something good in our few years. If you go away, you don’t know what happens, here you are the king … it is much better to stay here one year more and look what happens. Then maybe you can go anywhere.”

Although wealthier rivals could offer Leicester’s stars bigger salaries, the central England club appears to offer more stability for now at a time when Chelsea – and potentially Manchester United – will be out of the Champions League next season.

[ VIDEO: Leicester players celebrate

“The Champions League is another important league to compare yourself to the other champions,” Ranieri said in a public message to his players. “Maybe you change team and go in the big teams, maybe you don’t start very well and stay outside the first eleven, you slow down.

“It is important to choose very well for the lads because now, for me as well, the lads are my sons. If they come to me I say this, `Be careful.’ Leicester in the long-term will go in a very high position.”