Diego Costa

Looking at the run-in for La Liga’s title contenders

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If you’ve followed the campaign in Spain, you know league-leading Atlético Madrid will face defending champions Barcelona on the last day of the season. It’s been harped on all year. Ever since it became clear Atlético would sustain a title challenge,* May 17 has been circled in big red Sharpie on our mental calendars.

*Let’s also acknowledge how cool is it that we finally have a different title race. The circuit’s been plagued by the perception that it’s Barça, Real Madrid, and a bunch of sadness. That’s always a been gross exaggeration, with the distance between the top two and the pack feeding the delusion. If Atlético can establish itself as a consistent Champions League presence, embracing all the financial rewards that go with it, Diego Simeone may prove one of the most important people in the league’s history – somebody that redefined how the division is perceived by the world.

With their recent struggles, however, the Blaugrana may be no more than spoilers come round 38, given the holders are currently four points behind Atleti. With new injury concerns compound waning form and uncertainties at the club, Barcelona are drifting in the face of a tough run-in, one that sees fourth place Athletic at the Nou Camp this weekend.

Here are the three title contenders’ closing scheduled, with our thoughts on how the race could unfold.

Third place: Barcelona (78 pts.)

Apr. 20 – vs. Athletic
Apr. 27 – at Villarreal
May 3 – vs. Getafe
May 10 – at Elche
May 17 – vs. Atlético Madrid

Outlook: Given the team’s depressed spirits, the next two games couldn’t come at a worse time. Both teams Barcelona would normally beat, both capable of pulling an upset, Athletic and Villarreal are catching Barcelona at the right time. Unless they snap out of their funk, the Blaugrana will be out of the title race in two weeks. Prediction: 10 points, finish with 88.

Second place: Real Madrid (79 pts.)

Apr. 23 – vs. Bayern Munich
Apr. 26 – vs. Osasuna
Apr. 29 – at Bayern Munich
May 4 – vs. Valencia
May 6 – at Real Valladolid
May 10 – at Celta Vigo
May 17 – vs. Espanyol

Outlook: Even with some Champions League congestion (the italicized games), Real Madrid should win out. Their only road games are against teams in the bottom half, with eighth place Valencia the toughest challenge they’ll face at home. Knowing they’ll need to run the table to make Atlético’s game in Barcelona matter, los Blancos should be able to avoid pitfalls, even if the two-day turn around from Valencia to Real Valladolid seems harsh. Prediction: 15 points, finish with 94.

First place: Atlético Madrid (82 pts.)

Apr. 18 – vs. Elche
Apr. 22 – vs. Chelsea
Apr. 27 – at Valencia
Apr. 30 – at Chelsea
May 5 – at Levante
May 10 – vs. Málaga
May 17 – at Barcelona

Outlook: Though Atleti close the season with Barcelona, the team hasn’t lost to the holders all year (five games). Not on their two trips to the Nou Camp. Not when the defending champions were playing well. Even in those circumstances, Atlético’s managed at least a draw with Barcelona.

Perhaps a bigger concern: that trip to Valencia. Sandwiched in between Champions League matches, the game could prove challenging for a squad that’s not used to pursuing titles. Given all the other unprecedented heights Simeone’s side has met, however, winning at the Mestalla is manageable. Prediction: 13 points, finish with 95.

Note: Atlético Madrid wins the head-to-head tiebreaker with Real Madrid, having taken four points from the teams’ head-to-head meetings in league this season.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.