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Premier League Playback: Is this the best season in history?

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We thought it was all over… it isn’t now!

Last week Liverpool seemed to have one hand on the Premier League title. All they had to do was grind out a draw with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday. Instead, the Reds lost for the first time in seventeen PL matches, as a masterfully manufactured, and utterly Mourinho-esque, display gave Chelsea a stunning 2-0 win to turn the title race on its head.

With just three games to go Manchester City now have a slender advantage in the quest for the PL crown, as City, Liverpool and, to a lesser extent Chelsea, battle it out for the famous trophy.


Liverpool is still top of the standings, as they sit on 80 points with two games to go. Chelsea sit in second on 78 points with two games to go, while Manchester City are on 77 points but crucially they have three games left to play. The Citizens are in the driving seat, because if they win out, their goal difference is plus-8 over Liverpool. That means baring two mammoth wins for Brendan Rodgers’ side in their final two games, their destiny is no longer in their own hands.

The pressure is now all on City, will they crumble? Not according to Manuel Pellegrini.

“We always trust we can do it,” Pellegrini said. “After we lost to Liverpool I said we had to play three or four games more, each team, and in football all things can happen. We just had to win our games. We’ll see if we cope [with the pressure]. We must win the three games. I repeat: I’ve always said that all big teams must be under pressure to win the title.”

Pressure is building at the top and it is still building at the bottom too as Sunderland, Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich, West Brom and Aston Villa battle it out against the drop. More on that below, but ask yourself this question: is this the best Premier League season in history?

Premier League Schedule – Week 36

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 3-0 Newcastle Recap and watch here
Crystal Palace 0-2 Man City Recap and watch here
Fulham 2-2 Hull City Recap and watch here
Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea Recap and watch here
Manchester United 4-0 Norwich Recap and watch here
Southampton 2-0 Everton Recap and watch here
Stoke 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur Recap and watch here
Sunderland 4-0 Cardiff City Recap and watch here
Swansea 4-1 Aston Villa Recap and watch here
West Brom 1-0 West Ham Recap and watch here

In what other campaign has the title race come down to goal difference, no team has been relegated with just two games to go and the battle for the top four is still, mathematically, open?

I’d argue we are witnessing the best ever season in the PL. Let’s enjoy the climax which is sure to be just as dramatic as the previous 36 weeks of action. This grueling slog which started last August could come down to one final kick in the final second of the final match of the season to decide the champion and who is relegated. That’s drama. That’s pressure. That’s the Premier League.


If we call Liverpool’s tactics naïve. Chelsea’s were sublime. Time and time again the Blues cut their cloth accordingly and don’t mind digging in and grinding out results when they know that is the best thing to do. That is smart coaching.

For those of you out their screaming ‘anti-football, anti-football’ at the top of your lungs, you’re wrong. To do what Chelsea did on Sunday away at Anfield against a team going for 12-straight wins it extremely difficult and not many other sides can do it in world soccer. The shape, the organization, the discipline, for me it was almost as impressive as watching a team scoring six goals and tearing an opponent apart with scintillating attacking interplay. I say almost because we all love to watch goals hit the back of the onion bag. Yet this was a defensive masterclass, our analysts break it down in the video below.

Chuck in the factor that this mammoth game was sandwiched in-between two UEFA Champions League semifinals against Atletico Madrid and it’s even more impressive. Are you not impressed? Okay, how about this. 20-year-old center back Tomas Kalas was making his full debut at the heart of Chelsea’s defense, regular right back Bransilav Ivanovic slotted into the center, Ashley Cole came in from the cold again to play at left back and Cesar Azpilicueta swapped left back for right back in a totally new back four which looked as if it had played together for years.

In a recent interview with a Czech newspaper, Kalas said the following: “I am a player for training sessions. If they need a cone they put me there instead.” Afterwards I asked Mourinho about Kalas’ superb display at the heart of the Blues’ defense and the Chelsea boss was full of praise for the youngster thrown in at the deep end for just his third Chelsea appearance. The other two were as 89th minute substitutes, by the way.

“Beautiful. Beautiful,” Mourinho said. “Before the match we were laughing about it because big guys like Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole they had their debuts in the Premier League against small teams. And then this kid, Liverpool, Anfield, it is beautiful for him. He will not forget it.”

I was at Anfield on Sunday to watch Mourinho’s men undertake a grueling task. They time-wasted, they antagonized the home crowd and they got under the skins of Liverpool’s players and coaching staff. That was the plan. It worked perfect for Chelsea.

Click to enlarge – Average position of Chelsea’s players vs. Liverpool.
Click to enlarge – Average position of Liverpool’s players vs. Chelsea.

When Liverpool’s right back Glen Johnson made a raking crossfield pass in the second half, it illustrated Chelsea’s compactness perfectly. The back four of Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Kalas and Cole slid over seamlessly. In front of them the impressive Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel (more on their heroics in “three things we learned” right here) sat to clog up spaces for through balls and Chelsea’s wingers, Mohamed Salah on the right and Andre Schurrle on the left, tucked in as full backs. If you look at the picture on the left, you can see the average positions of Chelsea’s players against Liverpool.

You can see that Cole is tucked in almost in line with the left post, while Azpilicueta isn’t hugging the line at all. They entire back four sat on the edge of their penalty box, with Mikel, Matic and even Frank Lampard stationed in front of them.

The shape was sublime and completely nullified the threat of Liverpool’s attackers. In recent weeks both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho have tucked inside and tried to play in behind Luis Suarez, they did that again on Sunday as you can see on the right from their average positions. Why did Rodgers not ask his men to go wide? They simply gave up.

Mourinho sacrificed the space on the flanks to let Liverpool whip crosses into the box. In open play, Liverpool haven’t got players who can rise high and head home. Sure, they are a threat from set pieces with their center backs going up for corners and free kicks. Yet time and time again they got the ball wide and floated balls in that either Ivanovic or Kalas cleared, or the hugely experienced goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer claimed with ease. It frustrated Liverpool’s lively wingers and they drifted inside to get on the ball. That’s exactly what Mourinho wanted.

When Chelsea broke and scored the second goal to wrap up the victory late on, take a look at Mourinho’s celebration in the video below, right in front of the home fans, as the Blues boss overcame the jibes about his tactical approach and his illness which had kept him away from the team leading up to the game, to put a huge dent in Liverpool’s title ambitions.


As captain fantastic Steven Gerrard slipped and stumbled before losing the ball as the last man just before half time at Anfield on Sunday, the home crowd held their breath as Demba Ba homed in on Liverpool’s goal. Chelsea towering striker then coolly slotted the ball past the onrushing Simon Mignolet and then… silence. Apart from the dull cheers of Chelsea traveling contingent in the far corner of the ground, the majority of the 44,000 plus fans inside Anfield were stunned.

source: AP
Gerrard’s slip let in Ba to set Chelsea on their way. Should the Liverpool skipper take the blame?

If any other player other than Steven Gerrard had made that mistake, at that crucial point of a game that was so pivotal in the title race, they would’ve be hung, drawn and quartered by the Liverpool faithful. Gerrard is more than just a player, he is the club’s inspirational leader who embodies the ethos and identity of Liverpool Football Club. Instead, as Anfield awoke from its stunned silence, the Kop began to chant Gerrard’s name. “Steve Gerrard, Gerrard,” as the England captain proved his immortality with Liverpool’s fans.

He made a mistake, but he’s made several high profile errors before. most notably two eerily similar back passes which were intercepted by first Thierry Henry in England’s opening group game of Euro 2004 and then when Liverpool were leading Arsenal late on in 2005 at Highbury. That’s right, we remember those two instances because they were so rare. They stick out like a sore thumb because 999 times out of 1,000 Gerrard makes the right decision, the right pass and the right move.

Whatever way you slice it up, Gerrard’s slip let Manchester City back into the title race. Liverpool’s manager still didn’t blame his skipper afterwards.

“This was a boy who has picked up this club time and time again,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. “It was unfortunate. There is certainly no blame. We are in the position we are in because of him, he has been instrumental for us this season. It is just unfortunate he slipped over, it could’ve happened to anyone.”

Then Rodgers went on a rampage against Mourinho and Chelsea’s defensive tactics. We all know Rodgers loves to play attacking soccer, but what he said about his former employers was just plain wrong. Criticizing Chelsea’s style and saying “it is not difficult to coach” was a mistake from Rodgers. He set up his side naively on Sunday, as Liverpool went for the win when all they really needed was a draw. Rodgers’ flamboyant nature to persist with a swashbuckling style when Liverpool only needed to pick up a point was naïve. He should have resisted the urge to play Coutinho and Sterling from the start and tried to have coaxed Chelsea out of their ultra-defensive setup by keeping the ball at the back. The apprentice failed to handle the master’s tactics, as Liverpool must now rely on others slipping up if they’re going to win the title.

“You saw it today, there was probably two buses parked today instead of one,” Rodgers said. “It is a style of football. It is totally the opposite of what we want and our offensive mentality and direction. Give credit to them they won the game with bodies back in but it is not difficult to coach… 10 players on the edge of their penalty box. I was disappointed, with it. They got booked for time-wasting in the 93nd minute. Everyone could see from the start that was the plan, to frustrate.”


It was a big weekend for the bottom clubs in the PL last weekend, as Sunderland and West Brom have themselves every chance of getting out of trouble. As for Norwich, Fulham and Cardiff, only two games separate them from the dreaded drop.

Sunderland are in sensational form, as the Black Cats looked dead certs to stay up after a mammoth week for Gus Poyet’s men. Two weeks ago, it wasn’t looking so pretty for the Mackems as following their 5-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur I was in Poyet’s press conference where he said it would take a “miracle” and something “unique” for Sunderland to stay up. Well Gus, you have your miracle. Almost. Look at the image above and you can see how tight this race against relegation is. Wowza.

The Black Cats have drawn away at Man City, beat Chelsea away and then smashed sorry Cardiff 4-0 at home on Sunday. Sunderland are out of the relegation for the first time since February 10, as Connor Wickham has emerged as an unlikely hero with five goals in his last three games. As for the Baggies, they ground out a crucial win over West Ham thanks to Saido Berahino’s early goal. That 1-0 win lifts Pepe Mel’s side four points above the bottom three with a game in hand. They should, should being the operative word, be safe. As for Norwich, they slip into the drop zone on goal difference after losing to Manchester United and the Canaries’ final two games are against Chelsea and Arsenal. Villa are only two points above Norwich, as Paul Lambert’s side haven’t won in six and were hammered 4-1 away at Swansea as their woeful end to the campaign continues.

Then we come to Fulham. Felix Magath’s side blew their chance to get out of the bottom three on Saturday, big time. Leading 2-0 with 15 minutes to play against Hull City, the Cottagers hit the self-destruct button as calamitous defending saw them drop deeper and deeper, as the Tigers pounced twice late on to bag a 2-2 draw and deal Magath’s men a hammer blow.

Rebecca and the boys analyze the relegation run-in above, as this crazy PL season keeps twisting and turning right until the very end.

Premier League Playback takes an alternative look at all the weekend’s action from the PL, it comes out every week.

It’s prediction time! Who wins MLS Cup 2016?

KANSAS CITY, KS - DECEMBER 07:  The Philip F. Anschutz trophy is seen on the field before the start of the match between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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Because it’s extremely easy to predict what happens in MLS — yeah, right — the Stateside portion of PST’s staff has taken it upon themselves to predict the upcoming 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, which kick of Wednesday night, for you. (Links to each of our Twitter accounts have been included, because… well, you know why.)

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Nicholas Mendola

Knockout round

Toronto FC over Philadelphia Union
D.C. United over Montreal Impact
Real Salt Lake over LA Galaxy
Sporting Kansas City over Seattle Sounders

Conference semifinals

New York Red Bulls over DCU
TFC over New York City FC
FC Dallas over RSL
Colorado Rapids over SKC

Conference finals

FCD over Colorado


TFC over FCD

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

Andy Edwards

Knockout round

TFC over Philadelphia
DCU over Montreal
RSL over LA
Seattle over SKC

Conference semifinals

FCD over RSL
Seattle over Colorado

Conference finals

Seattle over FCD


RBNY over Seattle

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

Kyle Bonn

Knockout round

TFC over Philadelphia
DCU over Montreal
LA over RSL
Seattle over SKC

Conference semifinals

Colorado over LA
Seattle over FCD

Conference finals

Colorado over Seattle


RBNY over Colorado

[ MORE: Three MLS sides advance to Champions League knockout rounds ]

Matt Reed

Knockout round

TFC over Philadelphia
DCU over Montreal
LA over RSL
Seattle over SKC

Conference semifinals

Seattle over FCD
LA over Colorado


RBNY over Seattle

MLS Power Rankings: Going to the playoffs edition

Seattle Sounders' Nicolas Lodeiro (10), Herculez Gomez, center, and Jordan Morris, right, celebrate a goal by Lodeiro in the first half of an MLS soccer match against FC Dallas, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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As we prepare for the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, which kick off Wednesday night, we take one last shot at MLS power rankings, featuring only the 12 times still fighting in the postseason.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Which are the sides most likely to represent the East and the West in MLS Cup 2016? Let’s talk it out…

Eastern Conference

1. New York Red Bulls — Bradley Wright-Phillips scored 24 goals this season, including 14 in RBNY’s last 12 games. Sacha Kljestan finished the season with 19 assists, but should have had 20. Not to bury the lead here, but they haven’t lost a game since July 3 (9 wins, 6 draws). That’s an absurd run capped off with four straight wins to finish the regular season. Throw in the fact they’ll host the decisive second leg in every round up until MLS Cup, and it’s hard to see anyone else coming out of the East..

2a. D.C. United — Outside of Sunday’s finale in which Ben Olsen sat 10 of 11 regular staters — you’re not throwing me off your scent, buddy — DCU have destroyed everything and everyone in their path over the last month (four straight wins, by a combined score of 12-3). The strategy is simple: press high, win the ball, get it wide, get it in the box, Patrick Mullins will finish it. If they don’t win it early, they drop into a defensive shell that’ll frustrate you into a rage-quit.

2b. Toronto FC — Here’s my TFC theory: they’re better off playing in the knockout round, because Sebastian Giovinco, who’s only two games back from a month out with injuries, needs that extra bit of sharpness that’s still missing. Everything around the reigning MVP fell into place pretty well with him absent — the midfield diamond still ticks over best with Will Johnson on the field, and he should be back soon — and Jozy Altidore looks like a man possessed. They’re still TFC, though, and until they’re no longer “oh, that TFC,” it’s hard to totally trust them.

4. New York City FC — Is this team good? They won 54 points from 34 games, so of course they’re good on paper, but only three teams conceded more goals on the season (57). Of course, they outscored everyone (62). That’s rarely been the winning formula in the playoffs, though, and David Villa, for every wonderful thing he’s done his first two seasons in MLS, is still only one man.

5. Montreal Impact — Didier Drogba is still a member of this team, right? While he’s mostly inconsequential outside of the Impact lacking an impact forward off the bench, that’s just a bad omen to ride into the postseason, isn’t it? There’s not much to separate Montreal and Philadelphia other than if the Impact are to win a couple games in the playoffs, I know how they do it: Ignacio Piatti turns on video-game mode and draws 20,000 jaws to the floor.

6. Philadelphia Union — The Union, on the other hand, I have no idea what them winning a game looks like — theoretically or literally. It’s been two months since they’ve done it, they don’t remember what it’s like either. Bless Jim Curtin for trotting out a super-young defensive unit out there all season — they’ll be better for it next year — but they simply ran out of steam down the stretch (14 goals conceded in 7 games without a win).

[ MORE: Decision Day madness in the West | And in the East ]

Western Conference

1a. FC Dallas — I came really, really close — like, thisfreakingclose — to putting the Sounders at 1a, and FCD at 1b. The loss Mauro Diaz (torn achilles) last week and the transfer of Fabian Castillo in August would be season-ending blows to, quite literally, every other team in MLS. Yet, this is an FCD squad that is unbelievably deep, embarrassingly rich with talent all over the field, and motivated and prepared by the smartest coach in the league, Oscar Pareja. Papi will cook up a brand new scheme that’ll transform them into an impossible out in the playoffs, rather than the light-em-up attacking juggernaut they would have otherwise been. He is solely responsible for FCD at 1a.

1b. Seattle Sounders — Since Brian Schmetzer was named the interim head coach on July 26, the Sounders’ record is as follows: 8W, 4D, 2L. I could stop right there, and that’d be a solid enough case, but I’d be ignoring Nicolas Lodeiro, who has resurrected the a team that was truly dead when they quit on Sigi Schmid on July 24. Lodeiro’s numbers: 4 goals, 8 assists in 12 games played (all 1,080 minutes). Also of the utmost importance: the emergence of Cristian Roldan, a willing and able midfield runner who might just extend the career of Osvaldo Alonso by two or three years. You do not want to see this team in the playoffs.

3. Colorado Rapids — Speaking of teams you don’t want to see, purely from a standpoint of “they are annoyingly difficult to play against,” the Pablo Mastroeni’s Rapids conceded 32 goals in 34 games this season. If there’s one team in MLS 2016 that simply will not beat itself, it’s the Rapids. Their ceiling is mostly limited, but their bottom-out floor is higher than perhaps anyone else’s.

4. LA Galaxy — Saying the following goes against everything we’ve witnessed the last decade or so, but the Galaxy are something of a non-starter heading into these playoffs, from a standpoint of “we have absolutely no idea who or what this team is.” Robbie Keane played just 17 games all year (just six since the beginning of August), and it’s pretty undeniably Giovani dos Santos’ team now (14 goals, 12 assists). Gyasi Zardes hasn’t played since Aug. 27, and he may or may not come back to play in the playoffs after breaking his foot. Steven Gerrard has played 118 minutes in the last 10 games. That’s a whole lot of questions, and very few answers.

5. Sporting Kansas City — A shaky defensive team prone to costly mistakes at the most inopportune of times; no real focal point offensively, from a strategic standpoint. They do have a 16-goal-scorer in Dom Dwyer, and a dynamic playmaker (at his best) in Benny Feilhaber, but but the supporting cast has been mostly “meh” all season.

6. Real Salt Lake — The final seven games of the regular season is not a great time for your longest winless run of the campaign. Four losses, three draws in the months of September and October.

Combined rankings

2. FCD
3. Sounders
4. DCU
5. TFC
6. Rapids
8. Galaxy
9. Impact
10. SKC
11. RSL
12. Union

Serie A: Napoli end losing streak; Inter Milan beaten again

CROTONE, ITALY - OCTOBER 23:   Josè Maria Callejon (R) and Dries Mertens of Napoli celebrate the opening goal during the Serie A match between FC Crotone and SSC Napoli at Stadio Comunale Ezio Scida on October 23, 2016 in Crotone, Italy.  (Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images)
Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images
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ROME (AP) A visit to last-place Crotone was just what Napoli needed to end a three-match losing streak.

Roma also won against a lowly opponent, beating Palermo to reclaim second place from AC Milan.

Inter Milan, meanwhile, lost its third straight Serie A match to increase the pressure on coach Frank de Boer.

Despite losing center forward Manolo Gabbiadini to a red card, 10-man Napoli won 2-1 Sunday to spoil Crotone’s first top-division game in its home stadium.

Jose Callejon scored 17 minutes in and Nikola Maksimovic doubled the lead in the 33rd, shortly after Gabbiadini was sent off.

Aleandro Rosi pulled one back for Crotone in the 89th.

Gabbiadini was on the ground after being fouled by Gian Marco Ferrari and reacted by flicking his boot into the back of Ferrari’s leg.

It was Gabbiadini’s first red card in 153 career Serie A matches.

Ferrari was shown a yellow.

Both of Napoli’s goals were aided by poor defense.

Callejon redirected the ball in by the far post after a cross from Dries Mertens was deflected right toward him. Recently called up to Spain’s national team, Callejon has been involved in a league-best eight goals this season with six goals and two assists.

Maksimovic also scored near the far post, following a corner.

Napoli had lost two straight in Serie A and was also beaten by Besiktas in the Champions League this week.

Napoli is fourth, four points behind Juventus and two behind Roma and Milan, which beat Juve 1-0 on Saturday.

Promoted to the top division for the first time in its 106-year history, Crotone played its first three home matches 600 kilometers (375 miles) away in Pescara while its Ezio Scida stadium was expanded to meet league regulations.

The Calabrian club remained with one point.

“We did well in a situation that could have been very difficult, because Crotone was playing at home for the first time, the pitch wasn’t worthy of a professional match and we were down to 10 men after a half-hour,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said. “I’m happy that the lads will rediscover some confidence.”

Here’s a look at the rest of the action in the Italian league Sunday:

Mohamed Salah scored from a tight angle shortly after the half-hour mark after being set up by Edin Dzeko.

Leandro Paredes made it 2-0 in the 51st with a free kick that surprised Palermo goalkeeper Josip Posavec.

Dzeko added another in the 68th, finishing off a pretty series of passes with a low shot from the edge of the area for his league-best eighth of the season – the same number of goals he scored in his 31 appearances last season.

Robin Quaison pulled one back for Palermo in the 80th but Stephan El Shaarawy quickly restored Roma’s three-goal advantage.

Mauricio Pinilla scored the winner for Atalanta with a penalty two minutes from time.

After Davide Santon was whistled for a foul on Franck Kessie, Pinilla drilled the spot kick into the top left corner, leaving Samir Handanovic no chance even though the Inter goalkeeper guessed the right direction.

Andrea Masiello had put Atalanta in front with an early header and Eder equalized for Inter with a free kick after the break.

While Inter defeated Juventus in September, it’s been a difficult debut campaign in Italy for De Boer, who was hired when Roberto Mancini resigned less than two weeks before the season started.

“The only thing we can do is work hard to get out of this situation,” De Boer said. “I want to see the squad have more courage with the ball. … It’s a tough time for everyone.”

Inter captain Mauro Icardi failed to put a single shot on target after being punished by the club for his comments about the team’s hard-core “ultra” fans in his autobiography.

Atalanta, which extended its unbeaten streak to four matches, moved up to eighth while Inter dropped to 14th.

Torino and Lazio remained level on points, six points behind Juventus, after a draw that was determined with a penalty kick from Torino’s Adem Ljajic in added time.

After Iago Falque put Torino ahead midway through the first half, Ciro Immobile equalized for Lazio against his former club in the 71st with an acrobatic effort.

Substitute Alessandro Murgia scored his first Serie A goal in the 84th for Lazio before Marco Parolo was whistled for a questionable hand ball to set up Ljajic’s spot kick.

Nikola Kalinic scored a hat trick and Federico Bernardeschi added two more goals as Fiorentina won 5-3 at Cagliari.

Sassuolo and Bologna drew 1-1 in an Emilia-Romagna derby, Empoli and Chievo Verona played to a 0-0 draw in which Chievo protested for a goal even though goal-line technology showed that the ball wasn’t fully in; and French forward Cyril scored twice for Udinese in a 3-1 win over visiting Pescara.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter:

La Liga: Real Madrid win late, stay top; Atleti lose to Sevilla

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 23: Alvaro Morata of Real Madrid CF celebrates scoring their second goal during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Athletic Club de Bilbao at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on October 23, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
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MADRID (AP) Coach Jorge Sampaoli felt Sevilla needed a big win against a top opponent to establish itself as a true contender in Spain.

He got just that on Sunday as his team defeated previously unbeaten Atletico Madrid 1-0 to stay near the top of the Spanish league.

French midfielder Steven N’Zonzi netted the winner in the 73rd minute at a packed Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium to give the hosts their third straight win.

“It was an important game to consolidate ourselves against a team that looked unbeatable,” Sampaoli said. “We did well against one of the best teams in the world. This victory makes me proud.”

Sevilla, which has won six straight at home, reached 20 points from nine rounds, one point behind Real Madrid, which is top after a 2-1 home win against Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona, which defeated Valencia 3-2 Saturday thanks to an injury-time penalty kick converted by Lionel Messi, is third with 19 points.

“It’s going to be tight like this the entire season,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.

There had been some early doubts about Sampaoli as Sevilla lost in the Spanish Super Cup to Barcelona and the UEFA Super Cup to Real Madrid. But after the up-and-down start, the Argentine coach has finally been able to put Sevilla on track. As well as contending in Spain, the Andalusian club is also in a good position to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Atletico, which had the lead coming into the weekend, dropped to fifth place, three points behind Madrid.

Diego Simeone’s team played with 10 men from the 77th on Sunday because of a second yellow card shown to midfielder Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion.

Sampaoli made key adjustments at halftime, allowing his team to take control of the game and earn the hard-fought victory under pouring rain in Seville.

N’Zonzi scored the winner on a fast breakaway, speeding past two defenders after receiving a great throughball from striker Luciano Vietto. The Frenchman entered the area and calmly sent a low shot into the far corner as Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak charged from the net.

Real Madrid needed an 83rd-minute winner by substitute Alvaro Morata to earn a hard-fought win against Athletic Bilbao.

Karim Benzema put Madrid ahead just seven minutes into the game at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Sabin Merino equalized in the 27th and held on for most of the match.

Morata, celebrating his 24th birthday, scored from close range less than 10 minutes after replacing Benzema. Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz made the initial save but Morata persisted and found the open net off the rebound.

“I feel like a 10-year-old,” Morata said. “We won and we are in the lead, it couldn’t have been better.”

It was Madrid’s second straight win after three consecutive draws in the league.

Madrid and Villarreal are the only unbeaten clubs in the league after nine rounds.

Athletic is sixth on 15 points, six behind Madrid.

French striker Cedric Bakambu scored the winner in second-half injury time for Villarreal, but it was Las Palmas’ Kevin-Prince Boateng who attracted all the attention with a remarkable goal before halftime.

Boateng’s side volley from inside the area came after a mid-air, back-heel pass by Pedro Tana, who flicked the ball across the area for Boateng to shoot firmly into the corner.

Still unbeaten in the league this season, Villarreal has won three of its last four games and is in fourth place with 19 points.

Celta Vigo rebounded from two consecutive losses with a comfortable home win over Deportivo La Coruna behind a pair of goals by striker Iago Aspas.

After a 4-3 loss to Barcelona and a 5-0 defeat against Villarreal, Celta cruised to victory against struggling Deportivo to move to eighth place with 13 points.

The teams were tied 1-1 when Aspas converted a 60th-minute penalty kick. Chilean midfielder Fabian Orellana added to the lead in the 78th and Aspas closed the scoring in the 83rd at the Balaidos Stadium.

Deportivo, which has lost four of its last five games, dropped to 17th in the 20-team standings.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: His work can be found at