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Premier League Playback: 2013-14 season review

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As Vincent Kompany held the Premier League title aloft on the final day of the Premier League campaign, you couldn’t help but marvel that after 382 PL games the title winners would be decided in the final 90 minutes. As we all know by now, Manchester City prevailed as their attacking prowess and experience of winning the PL crown two years ago made the difference.

Yet while the City slickers celebrated way into the night and around Manchester city center on Monday, it is easy to forget that they were only at the top of the PL standings for 14 days the entire season. That’s right.

FULL COVERAGE: Premier League Season Review

This season was one of the most exhilarating PL title races we’ve ever seen. On the final weekend we knew the likely destination for the PL trophy would be the Etihad Stadium after Liverpool’s incredible collapse, but during the course of the campaign the Premier League lead changed 25 times. To put that into context, last season it only changed four times. 25 is the highest figure since a PL-record of 29 in 2001-02, plus it was just the seventh time in 22 seasons that the PL crown had been decided on the final day.

All of that, coupled with the rise of Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton, coupled with demise of perennial powerhouse Manchester United, made the battle at the top the most intriguing I have ever seen. Here are some stats, courtesy of our mates at Opta, on why it was the most incredible campaign in PL history:

  • This is the first Premier League season to feature two teams scoring over 100 goals (Man City on 102, Liverpool on 101). Chelsea (103) in 2009/10 are the only other Premier League team to score 100 in a single season.
  • Sunderland have become only the second PL team to be bottom at Christmas and avoid relegation, after WBA in 2004-05. They secured survival with a win over West Brom.
  • Manchester United finished outside the top six in the top-flight for the first time since 1989-90 (13th).
  • Jose Mourinho lost his first home league game as Chelsea manager, in his 78th PL match at Stamford Bridge (1-2 v Sunderland in April).
  • Asmir Begovic became the fifth goalkeeper to score in Premier League history. The Stoke goalkeeper was also one of three players to score after 13 seconds this season (also Jesus Navas and Jay Rodriguez).
  • 2013/14 is the first season in Premier League history to see 10 managers leave a club before the final day.


Premier League Schedule – Week 38

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

RISE OF SILKY SOCCER – Liverpool, Everton, Saints, Man City

Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City, Southampton… all of those teams have injected a new lease of life into the PL this season, as their flamboyant passing, high-pressing style and clever endeavor has enabled them all to surpass their goals at the start of the season.

MORE: Final Premier League Standings

Okay, City perhaps had the title in their mind, but apart from them Saints had their best-ever finish of eighth place, Everton finished fifth with a record points tally and Liverpool came so close to winning the damn thing but came up just short in second. They all did this with a possession based style which wore down the opposition and put them under relentless pressure from the first whistle. The pleasing thing for English soccer is that Liverpool, Everton and Southampton achieved their success by using young English players and provided a template that can be replicated by other PL teams willing to invest in youth and chuck them in at the deep end.

The PL has always been known as direct, fast-paced and rambunctious but this season we saw more depth to the play of teams, more thought, more intellect. The league’s core product of athletic prowess and breathtaking counter-attacks still remains but intertwined into those powerful teams is an enhances soccer IQ. We’ve seen that this season and it will only get more widespread. That’s something to look forward to.

City were deserved champions for the second time in three years as Manuel Pellegrini (known as ‘the Engineer’) added a solid foundation to City’s swashbuckling soccer. As they showed on the final day of the season, they were ruthlessly efficient and peaked at the right time. Below is a video which tells the story of their season, as City scored 102 goals (one shy of the record) and had the second best defense in the league. Quite simply, they were the most balanced side and over the course of the campaign the deserved to lift the crown.


Click to enlarge – Howard kept 15 clean sheets on his way to a sensational season for Everton.


It has been a mixed bag for the U.S. players in the PL, as the likes of Geoff Cameron and Tim Howard have excelled with Stoke and Everton respectively, while Jozy Altidore and Brad Guzan had a season of struggle against the dreaded drop.

Heading into the World Cup in Brazil this summer, the U.S. national players plying their trade in the PL were under intense scrutiny from fans back home who watched their every move intently and prayed for their full fitness. Cameron has been the big success story as he’s become one of the most consistent right backs in the league and is truly Mr. Dependable. His Stoke side finished in ninth, their highest-ever position, while Howard led Everton to their highest-ever points tally and a fifth place finish.

Click to enlarge – Cameron had a stellar season at Stoke, ranking 9th in total tackles.

As you can see in this photo, Cameron is loving life in the PL and from the end of season stats pack he ranked ninth in the PL in total tackles made with 108. As for Howard, he has kept the second highest number of clean sheets in the league (15) and has made the fifth most saves (111).

We all know about Altidore’s struggles in front of goal but you have to say that playing for Sunderland for most of the season meant his chances to score were extremely limited. That said, 1 league goal in 31 league appearances tells its own story. Guzan has battled on all season as Villa just beat the drop once again, with the former MLSer ranking seventh in saves made (110) and his impressive distribution helping to set up plenty of goals.

All in all, a decent season for the four USMNT stars who played regularly in the PL. Other such as Brek Shea and Cody Cropper failed to make an impact, while Maurice Adu moved back to MLS.

Read more here on how the U.S. quarter marked out of 10, here.


After 382 matches, it is hard to pick out a few… but I have given it a go complete with a link to the recaps so you can watch the highlights in amazement. You’re welcome.

  • RECAP: Everton 3-3 Liverpool, November 23, 2013 – A pulsating match at Goodison Park saw a fantastic Merseyside derby ebb and flow. The Toffees looked to have snatched a famous win following a rousing comeback but Daniel Sturridge popped up late on to seal a draw. What. A. Game.
  • RECAP: Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City, April 20, 2014 – Liverpool raced into a 2-0 lead at Anfield in what was dubbed as the title-decider and the Kop was in dreamland. Then a David Silva inspired City came roaring back to make it 2-2 in the second half but a late Philippe Coutinho goal gave Liverpool the win as Anfield erupted.
  • RECAP: Manchester City 4-1 Manchester United, September 22, 2013 – Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas tore United apart at the Etihad as City embarrassed their neighbors. It was derby day delight for the home team and they really could have scored double figures. This win was symbolic of United’s shambolic season to come.
  • RECAP: Crystal Palace 3-3 Liverpool, May 5 2014 – Liverpool needed to win and win big against Palace to keep the pressure on Man City going into the final weekend. Brendan Rodgers’ men were leading 3-0 with 11 minutes to go… then imploded as they went all-out attack to try and chip away at City’s superior goal difference. Palace’s comeback at a raucous Selhurst Park was something else.
  • RECAP: Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal, December 14, 2013 – At the time this was a top of the table clash as Arsenal’s superb early season form carried into the festive period. However their trip to the Etihad would bring them back to earth with a bump. It wasn’t as if the Gunners played too badly, City were sensational in front of goal and so clinical. Even late on Arsenal hit the woodwork and had goals wrongly disallowed as this match really could have ended up 8-8. A terrific advert for the PL.



The demise of United came courtesy of David Moyes’ mismanagement, poor transfer policies, a change at the top which saw Ed Woodward take over from long-term Chief Executive David Gil and, most importantly, an aging squad that was past it.

Moyes was given his marching orders four games before the end of the season and he simply didn’t fit in at United. The players didn’t work for him, his tactics didn’t please the fans and the man Sir Alex Ferguson chose to succeed him lasted less than 10 months at the helm. The superb video above takes you on Moyes’ ill-fated journey as he was doomed from the start at Old Trafford. Ryan Giggs came in to try and steady the ship but the new man in charge from next season is rumored to be Louis van Gaal.

Regardless, United’s title defense was pathetic as they finished outside the top four for the first-time in PL history and failed to qualify for a European competition for the first time since 1990. It was a record-breaking season at Old Trafford… but none were of the good kind.


This season in the Premier League a record number of managers were dismissed during the campaign. The price of success at the top has made soccer a cut-throat industry, we saw that this season more than ever. The stat below (which we used earlier, as it is so fitting) from our friends at Opta says it all.

  • 2013/14 is the first season in Premier League history to see 10 managers leave a club before the final day.

Why were owners so ruthless this season? Money. It’s always about money with them, isn’t it?

That, sadly, is the way it should be in the modern PL and that is why so many clubs chopped and changed their managers to try and avoid relegation. I wrote about this during the season, but the pitfalls of dropping down to the second-tier of English soccer don’t bear thinking about. Norwich City, Cardiff City and Fulham all changed their gaffers to try and alter their downward trajectory. It almost worked for all three but ultimately stability, not quick fix solutions, paid dividends in the PL. Crystal Palace replaced Ian Holloway with Tony Pulis and that worked wonders, West Brom’s decision to sack Steve Clarke and bring in Pepe Mel worked to keep them up… but now he is gone. Elsewhere Sunderland where the only other team who got their managerial switch spot on as the eccentric Paolo Di Canio went out and Gus Poyet came in to guide his team to safety after stating he needed “a miracle.” They got it.

Whatever way you look at it, the shelf life of a PL manager decreased significantly this season.


Let’s finish the last Playback of the season in style with a montage of 10 wonderful goals. Below are the best strikes of the season as the incredibly quality on show week in, week out in the PL is there for all to see.

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)
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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)
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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