Will Ronaldo win his first-ever Champions League title with Real Madrid this season?

Real Madrid sends Champions League message with 6-1 demolition of Schalke

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Two goals each from Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo highlighted a ferocious night at Schalke for Real Madrid. Posting a 6-1 win  in Gelsenkirchen, Spain’s leaders took commanding lead at halftime of the teams’ two-legged, Round of 16 UEFA Champions League matchup, with only a sublimely volleyed goal late from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar providing a blemish to an otherwise perfect night for Carlo Ancelotti’s emerging juggernaut.

The performance came amid a round of decisive results for the competition’s group-winners, yet on the last day of knockout round’s the first fortnight of games, Real Madrid performance proved its most lopsided. Paris Saint-Germain previously held that distinction with a 4-0 victory last week at Bayer Leverkusen. On Wednesday, however, Bayer’s Bundesliga compatriot did Samy Hyypia’s team one worse, conceding five times over the game’s first 69 minutes to embolden El Real’s status as one of the competition’s favorites.

(MORE: What we learned from Real Madrid’s five-goal, Champions League rout of Schalke)

Benzema’s finish into the left of Ralf Fährmann’s goal in the 13th minute gave the visitors a lead with their first chance of the match, a margin that doubled when Bale danced through the Schalke defense in the 21st minute before finishing inside the right post.

A spectacular goal from Ronaldo seven minutes into the second half quelled any doubt Spain’s leaders would walk away with the match, with Benzema’s second of the night five minutes later helping to extend Real Madrid’s lead.

Bale and Ronaldo completed their braces in the 69th and 89th minutes, with only late consolation from Huntelaar forging the game’s final margin – a five-goal win that essentially books their place in Champions League’s quarterfinals.

Schalke must still endure a second 90 minutes three weeks from now in  Madrid, but if history is any indication, the game is a mere formality. No team has ever overcome a five-goal deficit to advance in Champions League.

(MORE: Chelsea fails to kill off Galatasaray as home side earns a 1-1 draw)

A strong start from Schalke that saw Jefferson Farfán try his luck with crosses from the right was blunted as Real Madrid began monopolizing possession. That control, benign for the first 10 minutes, paid off in the 13th minute when Ronaldo put Benzema behind the defense for an easy finish.

Dribbling in from the right, Bale held off a pursuing Kevin-Prince Boateng to find Ronaldo facing away from goal at the top of the arc. A one-timed back heal intended to meet Bale’s run through the defense instead deflected off Schalke central defender Felipe Santana before settling near the spot. There Benzema beat an oncoming Fährmann into the left of goal, giving the visitors a 1-0 lead.

Seven minutes later, Real Madrid had their insurance. Benzema, harassing Santana along the right flank, created a turnover that he immediately played back to Bale. Moving toward goal, Bale dribbled around a recovering Santana and left back Sead Kolasinac to create an open shot 14 yards out. Finishing off the right post, Bale put Real Madrid up two in the 21st minute.

Ronaldo nearly added to the visitors’ lead in the 32nd minute only to see Fährmann push his low, 18-yard shot off the left post. Minutes later a cross for an open Benzema at the right post found the Frenchman’s outstretched leg incapable of keeping his shot under the crossbar. Two more saves on Ronaldo in the half’s final moments left Real Madrid’s star sniper off the scoresheet at intermission, with Madrid going into halftime up, 2-0.

source: APSeven minutes into the second half, Ronaldo had his revenge, much of which came at Joel Matip’s expense. Isolated on the Schalke center half at the top of the area in the 52nd minute, Ronaldo provided a flashback to basketball star Allen Iverson’s famous match up with Michael Jordan, with three step-overs sending the Cameroonian international to his left as Ronaldo dribbled in the other direction. With a left-footed blast just inside the far post, Ronaldo added another spectacular goal to his highlight reel, giving his team a 3-0 lead.

Five minutes later, Benzema’s finish from the right of the penalty area increased the visitors’ lead to four, with a finish from Bale near the same spot in the 69th minute giving Real Madrid their second brace of the night. When Ronaldo added his second in the 89th minute, all three of los Blancos starting forwards had scored multiple goals, with only a perfectly executed volley by Huntelaar from 18 yards out in stoppage time giving Schalke a modicum of consolation.

Outshot 23-10, with their guests posting a 11-4 edge in shots on target, the Miners home leg proved a premature end to their hopes of advancing to the competition’s final eight. Undefeated in seven entering the match, Jens Keller’s team had harbored aspirations of preventing Real Madrid from running their unbeaten streak to 27, but after falling behind six goals by the end of regulation time, Schalke’s performance served as the latest example of the growing divide between Champions League’s contenders and filler.

Along the way, Real Madrid made its strongest argument yet that it deserves to be mentioned among the favorites in this competition. While that’s a stature most grant to Bayern Munich (and Bayern, alone), Carlo Ancelotti’s team has emerged as the most likely team to unseat last year’s champions. Undefeated since October, the Merengues continue to improve, making thoughts of a much-coveted decima (10th European title) more realistic as the competition goes on.

While the Round of 16’s reverse legs may yet change that picture, for now, Real Madrid has earned its place behind the holders as favorites in Champions League, their 6-1 victory the most impressive of the fortnight’s results.

How Sevilla hope to destroy the Madrid-Barca duopoly in Spain

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 15: Samir Nasri  (2ndR) of Sevilla FC celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Sevilla FC at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on October 15, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla’s ambitious hopes of becoming a La Liga contender are beginning to materialize.

With an inspired team not afraid of confronting the powerhouses, Sevilla has shown it’s ready to take the next step and seriously challenge Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

One game before the halfway mark in the Spanish league, the squad revitalized by coach Jorge Sampaoli is only a point behind leader Madrid, a team it defeated in impressive fashion on Sunday.

The come-from-behind 2-1 win came thanks to another gritty performance by Sampaoli’s team, which has mixed high-intensity defense and a fast-paced attack to impose its style against opponents, no matter how strong they are.

“A victory in a game like this allows us to remain optimistic and believe that this team can continue this run if we maintain this same determination,” Sampaoli said. “Time will tell if we can succeed.”

Sevilla’s win halted Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sevilla had already come close to a victory midweek in the Copa del Rey, but it conceded two late goals in a 3-3 draw that led to its elimination. It lost the first leg the week before in Madrid 3-0.

“We had three difficult matches against Real Madrid and we were superior in two of them,” Sampaoli said. “We were able to beat a team that was unbeaten.”

[ MORE: PHOTO — Juventus unveil new logo, identity rebrand ]

Sevilla this season also defeated Atletico 1-0, drew at fifth-place Villarreal 0-0, and routed sixth-place Real Sociedad 4-0. It lost 2-1 to Barcelona in an encouraging display.

It has won six of its last seven league games, including four in a row. In front of its diehard fans at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Sevilla has won eight of its nine games.

It lost the European Super Cup title to Madrid in extra time last year, and this season advanced to the knockout stages of the Champions League, where it will face Leicester City in the Round of 16.

Sevilla has thrived in the lower-tiered Europa League, winning three straight titles, but its last Spanish league trophy was in 1946. The last time it finished second was in 1957.

It hasn’t had this much success in the league since 2007, when a squad that included Dani Alves and Frederic Kanoute fought for the title and eventually finished third behind Barcelona and champion Real Madrid. Sevilla led the competition after 18 matches that season, but with 37 points, two less than it has now.

Sevilla, the Copa del Rey winner in 2007 and 2010, also finished third in the league in 2009.

While Atletico Madrid made its way to the top thanks to the stout defense of coach Diego Simeone, Sampaoli’s Sevilla has been balancing a competitive defense with an effective offense led by players such as Samir Nasri, Victor “Vitolo” Machin, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Luciano Vietto.

[ MORE: PL Playback — One from six; who are the title favorites now? ]

It’s the first time since the winning campaign of 1956-57 that Sevilla has scored 38 goals in its first 18 league matches. Only Barcelona (47) and Madrid (46) have scored more this season.

“This team likes to play, it likes to attack,” said Stevan Jovetic, who scored the injury-time winner against Madrid on Sunday. “There is still a long way to go and we will be fighting against some top teams, but we will keep doing our thing and see where we can end up.”

Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who arrived with high expectations this season, has made a mark by successfully rotating players. Despite not having the same budget as Madrid or Barcelona, he has been able to make the most out of the squad put together by renowned sports director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez.

But despite the recent success and all the hype surrounding Sevilla, president Jose Castro is trying to keep the club grounded.

“We are excited, we are one point behind Madrid, and one ahead of Barcelona,” Castro said. “We will try to win it all, but the goal is to secure a spot in the Champions (League). The Spanish league is for other teams with a bigger budget.”

Sevilla’s next game is at last-place Osasuna on Sunday.

Courtois: Chelsea can still win title without Costa

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on November 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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A week from now, Diego Costa may still be a Chelsea player; he may also very well be off to the Chinese Super League by then.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The beauty insanity of the transfer market — and a volatile figure like Costa, in particular — is that no one knows which path he’ll take. After being made to train on his own on Monday, the best anyone can tell you is, “It’s 50-50.”

There aren’t many sides in the world that could stand to lose the league’s top goal-scorer (14 goals in 19 appearances this season; Chelsea have played 21 games) and still win the league title, but Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois believes that the current Blues squad is one that could hold onto its seven-point lead with 17 games remaining — quotes from FourFourTwo:

“Of course we have enough quality to replace Diego. Diego is important for us, but if he’s not there for one game, we know we can handle it as well.

“Was this a message to our rivals? Yes, just to see Chelsea won 3-0 and that loss at Spurs didn’t affect us and we can play without Diego if need be. I think everybody hoped for us to drop points and we didn’t so that was very good.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Eden Hazard has chipped in with nine goals of his own this season — his performances have been bordering on brilliance at points — while Pedro and Willian each have five league goals to their name. 19 goals from three secondary-type scorers is what champions are made of, until you consider the only other true striker currently in the squad, 23-year-old Premier League newcomer Michy Batshuayi, has 1) made just 13 PL appearances (all as a substitute); 2) scored just once, all the way back in August.

Louis van Gone: Ex-Man United, Barca boss LvG retires from coaching

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United celebrates after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Louis Van Gaal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In his mind, he probably imagine himself manager Manchester United for the duration of his three-year contract before riding off into the sunset after restoring the Red Devils as Premier League champions four months from now. At the very least, he’d agree to stay on one more season to complete a bit of unfinished business after narrowly missing out on the title in his third season in charge at Old Trafford.

Instead, he was fired last May, two days after lifting the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, and has been out of a job ever since. Van Gaal’s unemployment will now continue for the rest of his days, as the 65-year-old announced on Monday that he has retired from coaching after 26 years at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands (twice), Bayern Munich and Manchester United — quote from the BBC:

“I thought maybe I would stop, then I thought it would be a sabbatical, but now I do not think I will return to coaching.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

After the stress put upon his shoulders while at Man United, the last eight months must have felt like heaven to Van Gaal. Why on earth would anyone ever go back?

AFCON: DR Congo go top of Group C with win; Ivory Coast, Togo draw

Congo's Lomalisa Mutambala, right, with Morocco's Faycal Fajr, left, during their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Morocco at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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A roundup of all of Monday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ivory Coast 0-0 Togo

OYEM, Gabon (AP) Ivory Coast’s Europe-based stars stumbled in the heat of northern Gabon in their African Cup of Nations opener, with the defending champion held by Togo to 0-0 on Monday in another twist to start the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s title-winning coach fared worse as Congo beat Herve Renard’s Morocco 1-0 in the day’s second game.

Congo, a team that was on strike and refusing to train two days ago, finished with nine men on the field and on top of Group D.

Ivory Coast created few clear chances against Togo, with Wilfried Zaha‘s blocked shot in the second half after a clever run probably its best. Zaha was substituted two minutes later and, although Ivory Coast pressed hard in stages, it never broke open Togo’s well-drilled defense in the first game in Group C in the northern jungle town of Oyem.

Togo was competitive in the first half and had two good openings with around 10 minutes to go, when Kodjo Laba missed with a header from in front of goal and Mathieu Dossevi’s deflected shot dropped onto the roof of the net.

Four of the first six games at the African Cup have been draws, with Ivory Coast’s fellow title challenger, Algeria, held to 2-2 by Zimbabwe, a team that hasn’t qualified for the African Cup in over a decade. Also, host Gabon couldn’t beat outsider and tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau in the opening game.

“After Algeria-Zimbabwe and Gabon-Guinea-Bissau, we were very careful,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said. “But we still have two (group) matches so we are still confident.”

Togo even started better, and Dossevi was clear on goal in the 29th minute only for Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo to smother the chance.

Zaha was at the heart of Ivory Coast’s two best attacks, first in the first half when he sped down the right wing and sent across a dangerous low cross that was scrambled away. Then, in the 68th minute, he tricked his marker with a clever turn, cut inside, and hit a low shot that was headed to goal before two Togo defenders managed to get in the way.

Senegal and Congo are the only teams to win at the tournament.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

DR Congo 1-0 Morocco

Junior Kabananga got the winner for Congo in the 55th minute after a mistake from Morocco `keeper Monir el-Kajoui. Congo’s Lomalisa Mutambala was sent off for a wild tackle in the 81st and played the last six minutes of normal time plus six minutes of injury time with nine men when captain Gabriel Zakuani went off injured with all their substitutes used up.

Still, victory was a major mood-changer for Congo, whose players refused to train on Friday and Saturday, claiming they hadn’t been paid tournament bonuses. They also posted a video on social media during their strike, where they complained about their treatment.

On Monday, Morocco was the one frustrated: Midfielder M’Bark Boussoufa hit the crossbar in the second minute. Goalkeeper El-Kajoui tried to block a cross with his feet and managed only to divert the ball to Kabananga to score the winning goal. Then, substitutes Youssef En Nesyri and Youssef el-Arabi missed late chances.

Although Ivory Coast and later Renard failed their first tests at the tournament, the Stade d’Oyem held up despite a desperate race to be ready in time, which saw workers scrambling around the venue finishing all sorts of jobs on the day of the game. Television viewers won’t have seen the construction debris that surrounds the outside of the stadium, which juts out of dense jungle canopy around 15 kilometers outside of Oyem.

Even organizers couldn’t do anything about the heat during the opening match, though, with Togo coach Claude le Roy’s shirt covered in dark sweat patches after urging his team on to a promising draw against the defending champion Ivorians.

“It was very hot. We were sweating so much,” Le Roy said. “We did what it takes. We are satisfied with the draw.”

Tuesday’s AFCON schedule

Ghana vs. Uganda — 11 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Egypt — 2 p.m. ET