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

Totti out to ‘destroy’ Lazio in what could be his last derby

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MILAN (AP) Roma great Francesco Totti is out to “destroy” Lazio in what could be his last derby.

Totti’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the 40-year-old forward is likely to retire and move upstairs into a director’s role at the club where he has spent his entire career.

“It’s a different match to all the others,” Totti said. “It’s a team you always try to destroy on the field but with the maximum respect.

“For the city, for the curva, for the fans, you always try to give 101 percent. It’s a match you always want to win.”

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Roma won the last derby 3-2 last month but still lost to Lazio in the two-legged Italian Cup semifinals. Totti played less than 10 minutes in each match.

That semifinal defeat still hurts Roma and its fans, which are likely to fill the Stadio Olimpico again after ending a 14-month protest following the removal of deeply unpopular security barriers.

“It will be like all the other derbies, a must-win match,” Totti said. “It’s important because we all remember how the last one finished. We have to get our revenge.”

Sunday’s match is also crucial for the battle for second place in Serie A and automatic entry into the group stage of the Champions League.

Roma is currently second, four points ahead of Napoli, which visits Inter Milan on Sunday. The team which finishes third has to go into a playoff for Europe’s premier club competition.

Roma has a more difficult run-in than Napoli. After the derby, it next faces AC Milan and Juventus before ending its season against Chievo Verona and Genoa. Napoli plays Cagliari, Torino, Fiorentina and Sampdoria.

[ MORE: Henry, Aguero on playing for Pep ]

“It will be a very important derby for the standings and we will try everything to have a great game to bring home the three points,” Totti said. “We are going through this battle for second serenely and calmly, also because now we have a four-point advantage on them.

“There are only a few matches left until the end of the season, even if three out of five are very difficult on paper. We will try everything to finish second.”

Lazio is fourth, seven points behind Napoli.

Totti has been playing for Roma for 25 years – remarkably more than 28 percent of the club’s existence – since making his debut in the final stages of a 2-0 win at Brescia on March 28, 1993.

Totti, who also won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, could have won more than the solitary Serie A title, two Italian Cups and two national Super Cups he claimed with Roma, but he rejected offers of more money and glory to remain with his childhood club.

His face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital, where he is loved by Roma fans and respected by supporters of Lazio, despite his antics against them.

Totti has scored 11 times against Lazio and often celebrates these extra-special goals with T-shirts made for the occasion. One famously said, “I have purged you again,” while he revealed another reading simply “Game Over” after a victory in May 2015.

He hit the headlines in January of that year when he scored the second of two goals against Lazio and, in a pre-planned celebration for becoming the all-time leading scorer in the derby, grabbed his phone off Roma’s goalkeeping coach and took a selfie under the Curva Sud with thousands of adoring fans in the background.

In the Eternal City, Totti is Roma’s eternal leader – first made captain in 1998 when he was only 22.

Nike alluded to his “King of Rome” nickname at a promotional event on Wednesday to unveil new gold-colored boots to mark the Roma captain’s 25 years at the club.

Totti, who was greeted by about 200 chanting fans, was instructed to sit on a throne with the steps leading up to it bearing the names of the seven kings of ancient Rome, with his name placed on the final step.

“I have nothing to do with these kings,” Totti said. “I prefer to be judged than to judge.”

Bayern Munich activates clause to make Coman permanent

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Bayern Munich has announced its decision to make Kingsley Coman’s loan from Juventus a permanent move.

Coman, 20, operates as a right wing and striker, and can also play on the left. He’s made 40 Bundesliga appearances with six goals and six assists over two seasons for Bayern.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

It’s a $24 million option, and will bind Coman to Bayern through the 2019-20 season.

From FCBayern.com:

“Kingsley Coman is a crucial player for the future of our team, so we’ve decided to exercise the option,” commented Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge: “Kingsley is a promising player with great potential. We’re convinced he’ll help us in the coming years.”

Coman, Renato Sanches, and Joshua Kimmich are all under the age of 22.

Mourinho has chance to make major statement in Manchester Derby

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The betting market says Man City is more than even money to beat Manchester United, and wagering on the latter to win Thursday’s derby match is a longer shot than the Red Devils finishing in the Top Four (an achievement to be sure).

The worth of those metrics is debatable, but allows a sincere thought: Given their thin depth and the road challenge, a win for Jose Mourinho would be as impressive as almost anything Manchester United has accomplished this season.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

Maybe that’s obvious to many of us, but a twirl through the spheres of United supporter social media shows something different. Many Red Devils are confident of their teams’ fortunes in Thursday’s Manchester Derby, with one even predicting a 3-1 win in a comment on the NBC Sports Soccer Facebook page.

That could be an outlier, sure, but shows the demands Manchester United supporters place on their big spending club. United won’t have Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two of the best players in the world, and it’s not as if the club has had time to adjust to their absences. No one has played more minutes for United than Pogba and Ibrahimovic this season.

United is also without Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Phil Jones at the heart of their defense as it attempts to shut down Sergio Aguero and/or Gabriel JesusDavid Silva is a doubt for City, who also may not have John Stones, but Guardiola has options.

How Mourinho attacks — or doesn’t attack — City, and how Guardiola sets up his XI, will be interesting leading into the match, because parking the bus lacks its usual luster given the center back carnage. Will Mourinho trot out Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera in a bid to clog the midfield? Will he run Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford as a strike pair?

The answers to these questions and the unlikely event of a United road win may end up shining all over Thursday. And while that win would wind up being overshadowed by United’s finish on the Premier League table and UEFA Europa League, there’s little doubt it would stake a serious claim for Mourinho’s time at United being on the rise.

Henry, Aguero discuss playing up top under Pep

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One great striker got another one to open up on an up-and-down year at Manchester City.

Thierry Henry — one of the greatest of all-time, it must be said — sat down with Sergio Aguero ahead of Thursday’s Manchester Derby at the Etihad Stadium, and asked the Argentine about Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Jesus, and more.

[ PL PREVIEW: Manchester Derby ]

At times, it’s a fascinating discussion on playing lone striker. Even apart from the obligatory questions regarding Jesus’ arrival at City, Henry and Aguero speak their craft in a manner you don’t see too often.

That’s helped by the fact that Henry played for Guardiola at Barcelona, and can relate to the positional demands of Man City’s boss. Consider this exchange, from Sky Sports:

HENRY: When I was at Arsenal, I played up front and if I wanted to drift out to the left, I could. But when I got to Barca, I had to stay out wide and press. Sometimes doing that can be hard.

AGUERO: The thing I’ve found the hardest has been getting into my head the fact that I have to press the centre-back and the goalkeeper in matches. That’s what Pep asks me to do. It may not be a big deal, but in terms of processing it, the two of us speak a lot. He knows what I’m like.

I’ve been gradually learning and adapting to that style of pressing over the last few months. The first thing he taught me was how to press and how to do it well. Obviously there are times when I might drift out of position or I might press in an area where I’m not supposed to be, which might make it hard for the wingers or midfielders.

In the game itself, I may not realise because I’m so immersed and you can’t stop yourself. I’ve learnt a lot from him in terms of zones. He asks me to play as a No 9 and to stay in that position. I often drift out wide during matches and he looks at me and says, “If there’s a player out wide who wants to cross it in, who’s in there? Nobody.”

HENRY: I know all about that, believe you me.

I love this, because it shows how difficult it is for an elite striker to adapt his mentality. Both Henry and Aguero found world-celebrated success by playing in a certain fashion, and Guardiola understood that and still demanded a change. Earlier this season, the manager somewhat famously spoke of improving Aguero.

Aguero has been linked with Real Madrid given the tumult at City.