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Three things we learned from Atlético Madrid’s draw in Barcelona

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The teams’ fourth meeting of the season ended the same as the first three, but we were better for it. Another perfectly balanced game between Barcelona and Atlético Mardid ended 1-1 today at the Nou Camp, and while that road may yet loom large, today’s game was another example of how perfectly matched these two teams have become.

After a scoreless first half that saw Gerard Piqué and Diego Costa leave with leg injuries, a long distance blast into the upper-right hand corner from substitute Diego game Atleti that precious away goal. Fifteen minutes later, brilliant work from Andrés Iniesta and Neymar produced a goal from the Brazilian, a tally the Blaugrana were unable to build on over the last 20 minutes.

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

Here are three things we learned from the first leg of the teams’ UEFA Champions League quarterfinal:

1. It’s about more than the stars … until it’s not – When an apparent leg injury forced Barcelona defender Gerard Piqué from the game in the 12th minute, an Atlético team that got a surprise start from forward Diego Costa looked to have a huge edge. But 18 minutes later, Atleti’s star striker was limping off, too, leaving Diego Simeone with his third (David Villa) and fourth (Diego) choice options leading his attack.

Though the game lost two of its most talented players, it was no worse for it. In fact, Tuesday’s contest was indistinguishable from the combative and enthralling games that characterized the teams’ first three battles. When Diego’s early second half blast found Pinto’s upper-left hand corner from distance, you could argue the game was actually (if unintentionally) better for losing two stars.

Then came the reminder of what stardom can do. Sure, Atlético right back Juanfran may have been caught a step out of position on Barcelona’s equalizer, but it took a sublime pass from Andrés Iniesta to exploit that crack. Neymar pounced and put an inch perfect shot around Thibault Courtois. It was going to take two of the world’s most talented players to break down Atlético. For one brief moment, they managed to do so.

Barcelona and Simeone’s Atlético have developed such distinct identities, it would take more than two injuries for them to change. But part of that identity is the brilliance of their players. And there are few more brilliant than Andrés Iniesta.

(MORE: Three things we learned from Manchester United and Bayern Munich’s draw)

source: AP2. Clearly, Atlético’s going nowhere – You can understand why people don’t want to believe in Atlético, but at this point, there’s no reason to think this team can’t compete with Europe’s best. They’ve been doing so ever since Diego Simeone came on board.

Earlier this year, the doubt was understandable. Small sample, and such. Combine that with the team’s recent track record, the names in the squad, and the lack of day-to-day coverage La Liga gets around these parts (let’s face it: it’s still Barcelona, Real Madrid, and who? as attention spans go), and the idea that Atlético’s a fluke has been allowed to persist. Sure, they drew Barcelona three times this year, but Champions League would be different, right?

For those not watching Manchester United-Bayern Munich, we saw how serious Barcelona has been. And in the 360 minutes Gerardo Martino’s team has played against Atlético, the team’s led for none of them. It’s not just that Atlético has been competing in these games. They’ve been the closer side to wining them (well, two of them).

We’ve seen enough by now to know Atleti are for real. Even people who don’t follow the Spanish league can buy in. Now it’s a question of whether “for real” translates into “Champions League semifinalist.”

(MORE: Brilliance of Barcelona, Atlético Madrid has begun to transcend results)

3. We need to stop and smell these roses – The longer this battle goes, the more amazing it becomes. Barcelona and Atlético, so perfectly matched, are slated to play six games this season. But whereas in previous seasons, when Barça and Real Madrid engaged in a seemingly endless series of Clasicos, it’s hard to get enough of Atlético and Barcelona.

From earlier today:

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.

We’ll see it again next week, we’ll see it again on the last day of the Spanish season, and if we’re lucky, we might get two more draws. but after these teams change this summer, the balance will be thrown off. Savior this time we have with Atlético and Barcelona.

Premier League Team of the Week — Round 36

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 30: Karl Darlow of Newcastle United is congratulated by Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United after saving a penalty during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace at St James' Park on April 30, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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It’s incredible that Karl Darlow is Newcastle United’s starting goalkeeper, let alone a member of the PL Team of the Week.

The 25-year-old Northampton-born backstop is the Magpies’ third-choice keeper, having arrived from Nottingham Forest last summer to learn under Tim Krul and Rob Elliot.

[ VIDEO: Leicester fans react to title ]

But injuries to both of his international superiors thrust Darlow into the spotlight, and it took him some time to acclimate to the Premier League.

He looked just fine in Newcastle’s potentially massive 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, stopping a penalty amongst several other stops as the Magpies moved out of the drop zone for the first time since February.

Premier League Team of the Week — Week 36

Goalkeeper: Karl Darlow (Newcastle United)

Defenders: Wes Morgan (Leicester City), Leighton Baines (Everton), Winston Reid (West Ham United)

Midfielders: Mark Noble (West Ham United), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham United), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Andros Townsend (Newcastle United)

Forwards: Troy Deeney (Watford), Sadio Mane (Southampton), Andre Ayew (Swansea City)

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri’s best moments, quotes this season

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 14:  Claudio Ranieri the manager of Leicester City reacts as Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Chelsea at the King Power Stadium on December14, 2015 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri is everyone’s favorite manager.

And not just because “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” will be added to the English dictionary very soon.

The Italian boss, 64, has guided Leicester City to the 2015-16 Premier League title — the first top-flight trophy in their 132-year history — in just his first season in charge at the King Power Stadium.

[ VIDEO: Leicester players celebrate ]

He has guided the 5000-1 shots at the start of the season to an incredible title win. At the start of the campaign he was the favorite to be the first manager to be fired this season.

After spending four years at Chelsea from 2000-04 where he was ruthlessly sacked by Russian owner Roman Abramovich who didn’t believe he could win trophies, Ranieri has won the biggest one of them all in his first season back in England.  Remarkable.

[ MORE: Latest Leicester news after PL win ]  

The veteran boss has now won his first-ever league title in his long and distinguished managerial career against all the odds. He is, without doubt, the mastermind behind Leicester’s remarkable title win. There are calls for Ranieri to be knighted by the Queen of England and given what his team has achieved, why not?

Despite his obviously skill as a manager, he is also a genuinely nice bloke when it comes to interacting with fans and the media.

The video below looks at some of the most memorable moments this season from the lovable Italian.

Bellissimo.

Premier League Player of the Week — Round 36 (video)

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When Joe Hart looks to his left, he might expect to see a Sadio Mane shot going past him.

That’s how lethal the Southampton attacker was this weekend, recording a hat trick in Saints’ 4-2 win over Manchester City.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Mane becomes the third Southampton player to snare Premier League Player of the Week honors this season, joining Graziano Pelle and Fraser Forster.

Just two more honors to go this PL season.

Premier League Players of the Week – Round 36

Week 1: Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

Week 2: Romelu Lukaku, Everton

Week 3: Callum Wilson, Bournemouth

Week 4: Bafetimbi Gomis, Swansea City

Week 5: Steven Naismith, Everton

Week 6: Anthony Martial, Manchester United

Week 7: Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal

Week 8: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Week 9: Raheem Sterling, Manchester City

Week 10: Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur

Week 11: Arouna Kone, Everton

Week 12: Jesse Lingard, Manchester United

Week 15: Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

Week 16: Ayoze Perez, Newcastle United

Week 17: Odion Ighalo, Watford

Week 19: Xherdan Shaqiri, Stoke City

Week 20: Jermain Defoe, Sunderland

Week 21: Jermain Defoe, Sunderland

Week 22: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Week 23: Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur

Week 24: Fraser Forster, Southampton

Week 25: Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa

Week 26: Pedro, Chelsea

Week 27: Marcus Rashford, Manchester United

Week 28: Connor Wickham, Crystal Palace

Week 29: Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

Week 30: Graziano Pelle, Southampton

Week 31: Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur

Week 32: Alex Iwobi, Arsenal

Week 33: Andy Carroll, West Ham United

Week 34: Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

Week 35: Eden Hazard, Chelsea

Week 36: Sadio Mane, Southampton

Pellegrini defends fielding “B” team in loss at Southampton

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MAY 01:  Kelechi Iheanacho (72), Samir Nasri (C) and Wilfred Bony of Manchester City (R) looks despondent as Sadio Mane of Southampton scores their fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
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Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini does not regret fielding a weakened side at Southampton over the weekend as he prepares for City’s Champions League semifinal at Real Madrid on Wednesday.

Pellegrini chose to rest many of his top players at St. Mary’s, including Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Vincent Kompany. City were smashed 4-2 in one of their worst performances of the season.

[ RECAP: Saints 4-2 Man City ]

Pellegrini defended his lineup decisions after the match, saying he is willing to risk results in the Premier League to reach the Champions League final.

We knew before the game it was a risk to put so many players without football against a difficult team but we have to take those risks. If we had played on Saturday we could put more players out. I was disappointed with the team. It’s my responsibility for the starting 11.

I would do exactly the same again because we have an important game.

We play for the final in the Champions League. We continue in the Premier League what we are going to do in the next two games to be in the top four so that was a risk but one we had to take.

While you would expect a drop-off when the likes of Aguero and de Bruyne are not on the pitch, City’s poor performance was much more than just a team selection issue. With Raheem Sterling ($75 million) and Wilfried Bony ($45 million) in the starting XI, it was 19-year-old academy product Kelechi Iheanacho who was one of the few players to show any type of effort against Saints.

Pellegrini may be overlooking the end of the Premier League season, but his side still needs points to secure a top-four spot and berth in the Champions League next year. City currently sit four points ahead of Manchester United, but United have a game in-hand.

[ MORE: Burnley become first Championship side to clinch PL promotion ]

City travel to Spain for the second leg of their Champions League semifinal matchup against Real Madrid on Wednesday. After settling for a 0-0 draw in the first leg, City must put the Southampton debacle behind them and turn things around before the one of the biggest matches in club history.