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.

WATCH: Chelsea’s Chalobah nutmegs two Manchester United players in seconds

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Nathaniel Chalobah of Chelsea is closed down by Paul Pogba of Manchester United during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on October 23, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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For the first time since the 2011-12 season, Nathaniel Chalobah is not on loan and getting the chance to show what he can do for Chelsea.

At the very least, the 21-year-old midfielder has given the club a viral video.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby “a final” ]

Chelsea uploaded a video of Chalobah going double nutmeg on Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and Ander Herrera.

Given the opposition, it’s gone quite well to the tune of several hundred thousand views inside of four hours.

Watch the ex-Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading, and Napoli man go.

BVB boss Tuchel not worried about Real Madrid links

SHENZHEN, CHINA - JULY 27:  Thomas Tuchel, head coach of Dortmund looks on during team training session for 2016 International Champions Cup match between Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund at Shenzhen Universiade Stadium on July 27, 2016 in Shenzhen, China.  (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
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Less than five months have passed since Real Madrid won the Champions League final, yet in Florentino Perez’s mind that’s a lifetime. ()

Real’s president is anything but patient with managers, the latest example being Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian was fired a year after winning the club’s long-desired Decima and losing a whopping 19 of 119 matches in charge.

[ MORE: Manchester Derby “a final” ]

So even though Real Madrid leads La Liga under Zinedine Zidane and won the UCL last season, people are always imagining the future.

Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel’s style of play has captured the imaginations of so many supporters. And with BVB president Hans-Joachim Watzke claiming that Real is tracking the German, the questions are heading for Tuchel.

From Goal.com:

“It’s dangerous if you are flattered as a coach.You lose focus on the important things. I read it as a rumour before our game in Ingolstadt and so I already said back then that it’s dangerous to admit it and to think about it because it takes on too much importance.”

There’s no reason for Tuchel to have to ask those questions. Perez has called Zidane’s appointment one of his proudest moments, and that was just three days ago. Even in Perez’s world, that’s only a solid month, maybe two. %tags%

“It is a final” — Manchester Derby day finds both City, United craving win

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 10:  Images of Pep Guardiola the manager of Manchester City and Jose Mourinho of Manchester United are seen on a scarf ahead of the Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 10, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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It’s bonus Manchester Derby Day thanks to the EFL Cup, and so many eyes will be trained on Old Trafford come 3 p.m. ET.

There’s plenty at stake on the day, as both Manchester United and Manchester City have undergone a run of disappointing play in recent weeks.

[ MORE: Tues’ EFL Cup roundup ]

United was spanked 4-0 by Chelsea on Sunday, bringing their Premier League run to 1W-2D-1L over four games. City’s had it far worse, winless in five with a trio of draws in the mix.

For those considering that this derby could take on any lesser feel, rest assured that longtime rival bosses Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola will not be operating at full blast (even with rumors of youth-heavy teams on Wednesday).

Here’s Guardiola, from Sky Sports:

“I think everyone can believe this competition is not the big one but I am going to prepare to win the game.

“For the players who play, we’ll be depending on them to make the best performance possible. It is a final.”

Mourinho seems under special pressure given the losses against Man City and Chelsea in the Premier League, ones in which the genius was clearly outfoxed. He was talking about the PL when he said Tuesday that Man Utd needed wins, but there’s little doubt he’ll want to lose to City at home in any competition.

Get your proverbial and actual popcorn ready.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

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Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”