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La Liga & Serie A: Newly promoted Alaves shock Barca; Ronaldo returns, scores

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

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Real Madrid 5-2 Osasuna

Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t played a minute of first-team football since injuring his knee in the final of EURO 2016. He needed just six of them — minutes, that is — to mark his return to the field with his first goal of the season (assisted by Gareth Bale) on Saturday. The Portuguese superstar wouldn’t find the net again, and he would only last 66 minutes on the day, but it was a successful return to action in every possible way.

Most notably, the 5-2 victory for Real Madrid. Danilo, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Luka Modric each chipped in with a goal of their own, as Zinedine Zidane’s side became the only Spanish side still perfect three games into the 2016-17 season.

Barcelona 1-2 Alaves

Luis Enrique’s side dropped their first points of the season, at home against newly promoted Alaves. Lionel Messi was left out of the starting lineup (hamstring injury), but came off the bench on the hour mark, with the game tied at 1-1, and failed to make the kind of impact Barca needed.

Barca went behind through Deyverson’s opening goal in the 39th minute, but Jeremy Mathieu put them back on level terms less than 60 seconds after the halftime restart. Messi entered in the 60th minute, and Ibai Gomez scored Alaves’s winner, thanks to a fatal mistake by Mathieu, four minutes later.

Celta Vigo 0-4 Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann scored twice, and Koke and Angel Correa chipped in a goal apiece, as Atleti routed last year’s sixth-place finishers away from home. Saturday’s brace gives the 25-year-old Frenchman 46 league goals three seasons into his time at the Vicente Calderon Stadium (22 goals in each of the last two seasons).

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 2-1 Las Palmas
Malaga 0-2 Villarreal

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Sporting Gijon vs. Leganes (6 a.m. ET)
Valencia vs. Real Betis (10 a.m. ET)
Granada vs. Eibar (12:15 a.m. ET)
Deportivo La Coruña vs. Athletic Bilbao (2:30 p.m. ET)

Juventus 3-1 Sassuolo

Gonzalo Higuain scored twice to take his league goals tally to three on the season (through three games — after scoring 36 in 35 last season) before Miralem Pjanic made it 3-0 with only 27 minutes on the clock. Luca Antei pulled a goal back for Sassuolo, but that’s as close as they would get. Juve are a perfect 3-for-3 to start the season, already two points clear of Napoli. They will probably never relinquish that lead.

Palermo 0-3 Napoli

Napoli, and perhaps Roma, will do everything they can to prevent Juve extending their half-decade of dominance any further. In the end, it won’t be enough, but it’ll be enjoyable to watch them try for a while. Jose Callejon bagged a brace and Marek Hamsik scored the third as Maurizio Sarri’s side blew past Palermo on Saturday.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna vs. Cagliari (6:30 a.m. ET)
Chievo vs. Lazio (9 a.m. ET)
Genoa vs. Fiorentina (9 a.m. ET)
AC Milan vs. Udinese (9 a.m. ET)
Atalanta vs. Torino (9 a.m. ET)
Roma vs. Sampdoria (9 a.m. ET)
Pescara vs. Inter Milan (2:45 p.m. ET)

Beyond the glitz, France has problems to solve before World Cup

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PARIS (AP) France’s attacking soccer can be compared to an All-Star basketball game: showy moves, flashy individual skill and outstanding finishing.

Up front France boasts Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele, two of the world’s three most expensive players, and the 2016 European Championship’s top scorer in Antoine Griezmann.

When everything comes together, it’s a joy to watch but, behind the glitz, France has significant problems to resolve before its World Cup campaign begins on June 16.

As Euro 2016 runner-up, France will rightly be considered among the favorites in Russia. But rivals will marvel at the ease with which Colombia pierced France’s feeble defense and overran its tentative midfield on Friday. Trailing 2-0, Colombia rallied to win 3-2 in a tactical master class of positional switches and pressing which flummoxed France coach Didier Deschamps.

France showed similar frailties against World Cup winner Germany in November, twice squandering the lead in a 2-2 draw. Both times, France fluffed chances because of some complacent finishing – trying to score highlight-reel goals – and was then ruthlessly punished.

It is particularly worrying for Deschamps, who places high importance on tactical discipline, commitment, leadership and risk-free defending. Those were hallmarks of France’s triumphant teams at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 tournaments – with the combative midfielder Deschamps as captain – but they were missing against Colombia on Friday.

“We have to do more in terms of attitude, energy and playing with more heart,” France captain Hugo Lloris said. “We have to give more.”

In adding that Colombia “maybe has less talent but is a real team” Lloris highlighted the glossy veneer and soft underbelly of his side.

Striker Olivier Giroud criticized a lack of “aggression and determination,” adding it was important to understand why France was missing such “crucial values.”

Deschamps has another friendly, away to Russia on Tuesday, before he names his 23-man World Cup squad. He will then have three matches left to iron out evident flaws in his side, including a lack of leadership, lapses of concentration in defense, and a misplaced sense of superiority when dominating games.

“When things are going well, we’re capable of doing very good things. When things get tense we’re a lot more vulnerable,” Deschamps said. “It’s also a question of character, perhaps we are too self-satisfied and the highest level doesn’t forgive that.”

France’s second-half capitulation against Colombia was not just tactical; it was also because Les Bleus had no leader to spark a response.

France’s long-standing captain is goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. While there is no doubt over Lloris’ position as No. 1 – the Tottenham goalie is among the most consistent in the Premier League and has nearly 100 international caps – his position on the field works against him in communicating with his team.

Lloris has long been considered too soft-spoken and lacking enough of a vocal presence. Deschamps complained his side lacked aggression against Colombia, and he may question why he’s sticking with Lloris as captain when he is anything but aggressive, both in his body language and communication.

France plays such scintillating attacking football that its defenders must sometimes be tempted to put their feet up and admire it. Unfortunately, at times they seem to do just that.

Deschamps is still trying to decide on his best center back pairing: Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane alongside either Barcelona’s Samuel Umiti or Arsenal’s 50-cap veteran Laurent Koscielny. He went with Varane and Umtiti against Colombia and it was thoroughly unconvincing.

Forward Luis Muriel regularly got behind Varane, and Umtiti clumsily gave away a late penalty, from which Colombia made it 3-2.

But bringing Koscielny back in won’t solve everything, either. While he is a fine reader of the game, and one of the best ball-playing center halves around, Koscielny has a habit of giving away penalties and his man-marking can be poor.

Right backs Djibril Sidibe and Benjamin Pavard are attack-minded but so are left backs Layvin Kurzawa and Lucas Digne. Against Colombia, Sidibe and Digne raced forward almost at will, leaving gaping holes behind them for Colombia to exploit.

With N'Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, the last position Deschamps should worry about is midfield.

However, Pogba has fallen out of favor at Manchester United and looks out of form. Against Colombia, Deschamps paired Kante and Matuidi as holding midfielders in a 4-4-2 formation, but they were at times completely overrun when Colombia countered on the break.

A 4-3-3 formation – Kante holding with Pogba and Matuidi either side – appears to offer more protection. But Pogba’s tactical indiscipline means he often drifts out of position and, while he’s among the world’s most expensive players, Deschamps may be better off using him as a substitute.

Instead, Deschamps could opt for a 4-3-3 with Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso, who is far more disciplined and a crisp passer with a good eye for goal. He scored 14 for Lyon last season, including long-range strikes, and has found the net several times for Bayern. Tuesday’s match against Russia could prove important for Pogba’s chances of starting France’s World Cup opener against Australia.

Over 100 England fans arrested in Amsterdam

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100 England fans have been arrested in Amsterdam around England’s 1-0 victory against the Netherlands.

Off the pitch ugly scenes marred England’s win as groups of Three Lions’ supporters congregated in the Red Light district of the Dutch city and were shown throwing bottles and beer at police and tourists ahead of the game.

25 fans were arrested ahead of the game on Thursday, while Dutch police have confirmed over 100 fans were detained in total for several offences but “mainly for violence against the police” as clashes took place in the city center. Over 5,000 England fans attended the game in the official away section with many more buying tickets in the home end.

England manager Gareth Southgate had the following to say about the behavior of the fans, as he branded their booing of the Dutch national anthem as “disgraceful” after the Three Lions’ win on Friday.

“Without knowing the details, obviously it’s not something I want to hear because I think our players have represented their country really well with pride and with some style,” Southgate said. “Anything else that takes away from that performance for them would be a great shame.”

England’s supporters were involved in violent battles with fans from Russia and locals in Marseille at EURO 2016, while 27 England fans were suspended from attending games following Nazi salutes during a friendly in Dortmund against Germany last year.

The English FA has worked hard to stamp out fan violence over the years but given the ongoing threat of violence from Russian nationals, who are said to be targeting England fans this summer at the 2018 World Cup. The FA will be working extremely hard with the respective authorities to stop these kind of ugly scenes taking place once again this summer in Russia.

LIVE, MLS: Saturday games take center stage

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Six games take place across Major League Soccer to help you with your fix across the quiet weekend during the international break.

[ LIVE: MLS scores ]

Well-rested New England Revolution host New York City FC with Patrick Vieira’s men taking their 100 percent record to Foxborough but they have to deal with plenty of missing stars through injury and international duty, while an intriguing clash is coming up in the afternoon as FC Dallas host Portland (Watch live via the link below) with the visitors looking for the first points of the Gio Savarese era.

Columbus Crew host D.C. United with Gregg Berhalter’s men one of just five teams still undefeated, despite all of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Crew, while the New York Red Bulls host Minnesota United after both teams started the season well.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

In the late games Colorado host Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver welcome the LA Galaxy to BC Place but Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t available for selection for LA until Mar. 31 at the earliest.

Click on the link above to follow all the scores live, while we will have reaction and analysis from Saturday’s MLS action right here on Pro Soccer Talk.

Saturday’s MLS schedule

1:30 p.m. ET: New England Revolution v. New York City FC
3:30 p.m. ET: FC Dallas v. Portland Timbers

6 p.m. ET: Columbus v. D.C. United
7 p.m. ET: New York Red Bulls v. Minnesota United
9 p.m. ET: Colorado Rapids v. Sporting Kansas City
10 p.m. ET: Vancouver Whitecaps v. LA Galaxy

Five things learned from internationals

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With a plethora of international friendlies taking place across globe on Friday, we learned plenty about where the teams heading to the 2018 World Cup are it in their preparation for the big dance in Russia this summer.

[ MORE: International wrap

In case you weren’t scouring the globe at obscene hours to stay in touch with all the action, we were.

Here’s what we learned.

South American teams in fine fettle

CONMEBOL went five for five on Friday with wins for Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Colombia. There is no doubt that South America will once again dominate at the World Cup this summer. Brazil dealt easily with Russia without Neymar as Miranda, Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho scored in the second half as they continue their fine run. Argentina didn’t start Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero against Italy at the Etihad Stadium but ran out 2-0 winners with goals from Maneul Lanzini (his first for his nation) and Ever Banega getting the job done. Plenty of starters were rested at the 2014 runners up look incredibly strong. Plus, they don’t have to worry about losing out to Chile like they have in the last two Copa America tournaments.

Uruguay’s stars shone against the Czech Republic with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani on target in China, while Colombia’s fine comeback in France stole the show. Trailing 2-0 with 26 minutes gone, Colombia scored two late goals via Radamel Falcao and Juan Quintero to grab the victory in Paris. A fit Falcao will make a huge difference to Los Cafeteros’ chances of getting past the last eight this time out. Peru, who will be at their first World Cup since 1982 this summer, completed a fine showing for the five CONMEBOL teams who qualified the World Cup this summer as they beat Croatia 2-0. For those who are still shocked that Chile won’t be going to the World Cup this summer, these results prove just how strong South America has become.

England mature in 3-4-3 formation

Okay, the 1-0 win in Amsterdam was against a very poor Netherlands outfit who are in transition, haven’t qualified for the last two major tournaments and Ronald Koeman has a massive rebuilding job on his hands. But still, England were extremely impressive. The way Gareth Southgate‘s men moved the ball around in a 3-4-3 formation proved they are developing well and Kyle Walker as a right-sided center back was a revelation. Without the injured Harry Kane, the Three Lions did lack a bit of cutting edge up front but Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were so dangerous on the break and the main takeaway was the balance of this team and the composure on the ball of the defenders. Jesse Lingard (who scored his first international goal), John Stones, Jordan Henderson and Jordan Pickford all staked their claims for a starting spot this summer as England are unbeaten in seven games and haven’t conceded in their last five, including the last three against Germany, Brazil and Holland. Whisper it: England could be the darkhorses this summer.

Germany, Spain the real deals

The class of these two teams suggests that they will go far this summer. The reigning World Cup champs equalized through Thomas Muller’s stunning goal after Rodrigo popped up (after Andres Iniesta’s perfect pass) to put Spain ahead early on in a high tempo, high quality encounter. This is just the kind of tune-up both teams needed as Joachim Low and Julen Lopetegui have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. Both teams were close to full strength and this underlined their status as favorites to win the World Cup this summer. Germany haven’t lost in their last 22 games, while Spain hasn’t lost in 17 as the past two World Cup champs have not only got veterans in fine form but are also bringing through the next wave of talent. Also, Germany have Manuel Neuer to return from injury, while Spain will rely on Diego Costa getting back to his best to spearhead their attack this summer. Still, this was a hugely impressive display from both teams as Spain host Argentina in Madrid next week and Germany play Brazil in Berlin. Those four teams are surely the current favorites to win it all.

Ronaldo remains red-hot as Egypt impress

23 goals in his last 12 games for club and country. 23. Cristiano Ronaldo is in fine form after a slow start to the season where many questioned if he had turned the corner and had entered the final stretch of his legendary career. Not so fast. Portugal’s man main throughout his career, Ronaldo, now 33, popped up twice in stoppage time in Zurich, Switzerland to seal a comeback 2-1 win against an impressive Egypt side. Mohamed Salah (of course) got Egypt’s goal as the Pharaohs look forward to their first World Cup since 1990 and are set to be the darlings of the tournament this summer. Yet Ronaldo spoiled their party on Friday as he scored two bullet headers for the reigning European champs, with the winner looked at by VAR but correctly allowed. Will Ronaldo retire after the World Cup this summer? Portugal will hope he can go on for at least another four years and at this rate he will continue to deliver up until, and during, the 2022 World Cup.

Mexico ticking over nicely

El Tri beat Iceland 3-0 on Friday as an experimental side proved just how strong they are with Juan Carlos Osorio making plenty of changes as Mexico strolled to victory in front of 68,917 fans in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Marco Fabian struck a beautiful free kick in the first half and Miguel Layun added two goals after the break to beat Iceland, with The Vikings heading to its first-ever World Cup this summer as the smallest nation to ever quality. For Mexico, they will be hoping to continue their development under Osorio as the oft-maligned coach has won 30 of his 45 games in charge since taking over in 2015. Not bad, Juan Carlos. El Tri had Javier Hernandez, Hirving Lozano, Hector Herrera and Carlos Vela all on the bench as they will all likely play against Croatia on Tuesday in Texas. For Mexico, their World Cup opener against Germany is their toughest game of the group stage but Osorio must be pleased with the options at his disposal and the performance of goalkeeper Jesus Corona to keep out Iceland, who did create chances with direct play, was impressive. Mexico is humming along nicely as it heads to the World Cup aiming to make the knockout rounds once again.