Brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid has begun to transcend results

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Three hundred sixty minutes that leave two teams at a stalemate would normally be considered useless. After all, isn’t the point of competition to compete, with side eventually deemed the winner? Over short periods of time, draws are practical, but over 360 minutes? What’s the use of a stalemate if crowning the winner is our goal?

Four games this season from Atlético Madrid and Barcelona have challenged that notion. Except for the most partisan of Blaugrana and Atleti supporters, few could have cared about which side won today. Such a result would have distracted from the purpose, if not undermined it entirely. Barcelona’s full technical precision was again on display, pressed to its limits by an Atlético side that’s taken a completely contrasting approach. Eschewing the game’s new dogma of possession and midfield dominance, Atleti reaffirmed their status as Barcelona’s equals, a status made all the more brilliant as they’ve  brought out their opponents’ best while doing so.

Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say so, but it feel true right now: Today’s was one of the best-played games of the European season, something we’d be fawning over if we hadn’t seen it three times before. We saw it twice in August, when the teams played 0-0 and 1-1 matches in the Spanish Supercopa. We saw it again in January as the side waged 0-0 in La Liga. The same qualities that have vaulted Diego Simeone’s team to the top of the Spanish table force Barcelona to use every bit of their technical mastery just to keep up, just as the Blaugrana’s nearly unmatched, exacting control bleeds every drop of effort from the Colchoneros.

(MORE: Diego, Neymar goals leave Atlético, Barcelona even after leg one)

It’s the perfect match of opposing styles. It’s soccer’s yin against football’s yang. It’s modernism, possession, and technique matched against timeless emotion and organization. It’s a team that looks beyond the typical trappings of athleticism and brawn facing a side that leverages their power to complement their passion. From the same league, both sporting Argentine coaches, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid couldn’t be more different, yet, after each set of 90 minutes they play, the scoresheet’s left them beautifully identical.

It’s a contrast makes results like today’s 1-1 special – more valuable than a win could have been for either side. Because at this point, a victory would defeat the purchase. The battle’s balance of physique, application, and philosophy has produced some of the best soccer of our lifetimes: what’s become a 360-minute marathon, where each side has brought evermore perfect free soccer out of the other.

source: AP
Barcelona and Atlético Madrid (yellow) have met four times this season, drawing each time. After 360 minutes of play, the teams have a 2-2 aggregate scoreline. They’re scheduled to play two more times this season. (Photo: AP Photo.)

Would this same perfection be able to beat Bayern, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, or any of our time’s other great teams? In the wake of what we saw today at the Nou Camp, it’s a scornful view. It’s simple, greedy, short-sighted. It overlooks the obvious: This matchup, over the course of what will six games (by the time the teams meet on the last day of the Spanish season) has given us everything we could have reasonable asked for. To turn off today’s game and ask for something better is to take to watch another sport.

In a sphere were we obsess over results and define quality in terms of bottom lines, Atlético and Barça remind us of the bigger picture. Sport, ultimately, is meaningless, which means there’s nay so much significance you can put into a win or a loss. On a more basic level, the game is as much about the enjoyment is provides as the result. Talent, mastery, performance, and love all translate to victories, but no game can been seen in terms of its victor alone. The game only exists where two teams can meet, and in the space, through four matchups this season, Barcelona and Atlético have provided more enjoyment than was could have possibly expected.

It is, admittedly, a romantic notion, written while still reflecting on today’s game. There is, however, the unmistakable feeling that we’re seeing something special – a confluence that defies comparison in terms of its style, results, and, now meeting in Champions League, stakes.

And ironically, as those stakes escalate, determining a winner becomes even less important. In fact, it may ruin everything if, over the teams’ final two games for the season, anything but esoteric tiebreakers put distance between them. Let away goals decide who advances in Champions League, and let other results determine who claims La Liga.

But in the battle that really matters — the one we’ll get to see two more times this year — let nothing throw off this perfect, symbiotic balance. If anything, find a way to make these games last longer.

Championship Playoff Final preview: Huddersfield Town vs. Reading

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These two teams weren’t supposed to be here, at Wembley on Monday at 10:00 a.m. ET playing for a spot in the Premier League.

Everyone talked about how beautiful Fulham played. Everyone talked about how Sheffield kept on winning. Everyone kept talking about the favorites. Everyone wrote off the other guys.

Yet here we are. Reading, owner of a +4 goal differential. Huddersfield Town, owner of a -2 goal differential. Reading, winners over Fulham thanks to a bogus handball. Huddersfield, on to Wembley after a penalty shootout in the rain.

Here we are. The game that will catapult one team to the riches of the Premier League, the game that will send another team back to the depths of the Championship, consigned to progress with the heartbreak of knowing they were so close.

[ MORE: USMNT roster announced for upcoming World Cup qualifiers ]

The Championship playoff final is one of the biggest enigmas in the European soccer landscape. Teams like Reading looking to return to familiar lands of plentiful bounty, others like Huddersfield looking for glory never experienced before.

Huddersfield has not seen top flight action since 1972, and former American international David Wagner has them on the precipice. “There were a lot of statements before the semi-finals about momentum and about form,” Wagner said. “It is another example where we have proven that experience and what has happened in the past is irrelevant. After the 120 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday there were a lot of tired legs, but now after a training camp in Portugal and training on the grass here, everybody is ready to go.”

As far as form goes, Town is struggling. They drew both legs of the Sheffield Wednesday playoff semifinal 0-0, and finished the regular season on a three-match losing streak. They haven’t won a match since April 14th.

Reading, meanwhile, finished the year with wins in seven of their final nine regular season games, and they downed an attacking Fulham side 1-0 at home in the second leg of their semifinal. They’ve been stellar at winning close games all year, winning 18 regular season games by just a single goal, and losing just four, with seven draws. If Jaap Stam can lead his side back to the Premier League, it would mark just a four-year turnaround from their previous relegation from the top flight.

Riches await the winner. The sides couldn’t be more different, and yet on Monday, they both face the same brick wall.

Epic fake injury mars Hungarian league title match

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Sometimes it works out perfectly. Two teams, a title on the line, one match to decide it.

The top two teams in the Hungarian top flight, also known as the NB I, were set to play each other on the final day of the season to decide the title winner.

Budapest Honved hosted Videoton, with the winner set to win the league title. A draw would have given Videoton the victory on goal differential.

With the match 0-0 at halftime, it progressed tensely through the second half. So tense, in fact, that the teams felt they needed to do everything in their power to earn an edge. Even fake injuries. Terribly.

34-year-old Videoton striker Danko Lazovic, a veteran who has been around Europe with Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, and a host of Eredivisie teams,  looked to earn a foul in the attacking half. He put so much effort into selling the foul that, well, he went a little overboard. And by a little overboard, we mean he went berserk on the field, rolling around and flailing on his back.

There are many factors that make this an absolutely epic moment. First, his team had already earned a foul without the dive. The referee had blown the whistle for a shove moments before Lazovic went down. Second, his teammate looks to come over and help him sell the foul a little more realistically, and instead of accept his teammate’s assistance, he shrugs off the help and continues to flail. Third, as karma would have it, Honved would score the title-winning goal six minutes later as they would go on to win 1-0.

Kids, don’t try this at home. It’s not a good look.

MLS Snapshot: Atlanta United 3-1 NYCFC

@DougRobertsonAJC via Twitter
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The game in 100 words (or less): Revenge, at the hands of a 3-1 scoreline. The match started out a little too fast for Atlanta, one of the quickest teams in MLS, but they settled things down and finished ruthlessly. NYCFC, meanwhile, defended miserably and failed to match the intensity of the hosts. First-round draft pick Julian Gressel was an utter menace down the right, and Miguel Almiron was decisive in front of net. NYCFC took advantage of the weekly Atlanta defensive mistake for a lifeline with 20 minutes to go, but it was too little too late.

Three moments that mattered

16′ – A big deflection off a NYCFC midfielder sprung an Atlanta attack, but the hosts took the chance well. Gressel latched onto the ball on the right edge of the box, and he cut the ball back where three Atlanta attackers were waiting unmarked. It came to Almiron, and while his finish was less than ideal, some ugly goalkeeping saw the ball slip under the armpit of a diving Sean Johnson who overshot the effort.

19′ – It came unraveled for NYCFC in a heartbeat. The right side of the defense fell asleep for a split second, allowing Hector Villaba to burst through on a ball by Yamil Asad, and Villaba finished expertly into the far top corner with Maxime Chanot unable to catch up.

23′ – Not even a half-hour gone and the game was already wrapped up, with the third goal sporting the most glaring defensive mistake by the visitors. As Gressel battled with Alexander Callens for a loose ball down the right, Callens appeared to have the edge, but instead of playing the ball, he went down under the slightest contact from Gressel. When the referee let play continue, Gressel was all by himself, and with a 4-on-1 developing, he found Almiron for the easiest of finishes.

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Man of the match: Juilan Gressel.

Goalscorers: Almiron (16′, 23′), Villaba (19′), Harrison (71′).

Serie A roundup: Roma pips Napoli for 2nd, Lazio falls

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Francesco Totti’s legendary career came to a close in fitting fashion as Roma scored a last-minute winner to secure 2nd place in the Serie A table.

On the final day of the season, Napoli’s win at Sampdoria moved them momentarily into second, but Roma snatched the spot back as Diego Perotti scored in the 90th minute to beat Genoa 3-2. Totti had come on as a 54th minute substitute.

[ MORE: Francesco Totti’s career achievements make him an all-time great ]

The win saw Roma end the season on 87 points, one above Napoli’s 86. That puts Roma into the Champions League group stage, while the third-place finish for Napoli places them in next season’s Champions League playoff round. They finish the season with a dominating 4-2 win over Sampdoria that saw four different Napoli goalscorers find the back of the net.

Below the Champions League battle, Atalanta held onto its fabulous fourth-place finish as Lazio fell 3-1 at Crotone. With Lazio already down 2-1 midway through the first half, Angolan defender Bastos received a second yellow card. Down to 10 men, Lazio still controlled the majority of possession but saw themselves outshot, only able to pop off three shots on target. The loss has no significant bearing, as both Atalanta and Lazio qualify for the Europa League group stage, while AC Milan seven points adrift in sixth makes the Europa League third qualifying round.

AC Milan finishes the season a point above rivals Inter despite a 2-1 final-day loss to Cagliari. The game was tied 1-1 down the stretch, but Gabriel Paletta was sent off with 15 minutes remaining, and Fabio Pisacane scored three minutes deep into stoppage time to give Cagliari the win.

Inter, meanwhile, finished the year on a high note as they hammered Udinese 5-2, most notably on a brace from Eder. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic also scored in the win, while the fifth came on a late own goal. Inter finished the year on 62 points, five less than last season’s 67 which was good enough for fourth place.

Elsewhere, Fiorentina finished a disappointing season with a disappointing 2-2 home draw with last-placed Pescara, while Palermo beat Empoli 2-1 and five goalscorers helped Torino pound Sassuolo 5-2.