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Boosted by stadium blessing, Atletico takes on Real Madrid

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid’s president and club officials looked on as its new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium was blessed in a private pitch-side ceremony this week.

Cardinal Carlos Osoro led the blessing which may have come at the right time for Atletico ahead of this weekend’s city derby against Real Madrid – with the team needing all the help it can get to overcome its struggles at the new 68,000-capacity home.

Diego Simeone’s team has only two wins in six games since the Metropolitano was inaugurated this season, losing once and drawing three straight going into Saturday’s match.

“We want to win the first ever derby at the Wanda Metropolitano,” Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann said in an interview with La Liga’s website. “It’s a very important match for the fans, for the club. It’s a match every player wants to be a part of.”

The inaugural derby at the new stadium could be decisive for the teams’ title hopes this season, as Barcelona has already opened a significant advantage at the top of the league standings.

The loser this weekend may find itself facing an 11-point deficit against the thriving Catalan club.

Barcelona plays at mid-table Leganes on Saturday. Second-place Valencia, four points behind Barcelona and four points in front of both Madrid clubs, plays at Espanyol on Sunday to try to extend its seven-game winning streak in the league.

Atletico remains unbeaten in La Liga but has won only two of its last nine matches in all competitions.

“It’s been difficult to score goals and to win matches,” Griezmann said. “We are solid on defense, we just need to turn things around on offense. We have to keep working hard to try to improve.”

Real Madrid is coming off a home victory over Las Palmas in the league, a result that helped restore order after two consecutive losses sparked a wave of criticism against Zinedine Zidane’s team.

“Focused,” was Cristiano Ronaldo’s message on Instagram this week along with a photo of him training for Saturday’s match.

Atletico got off to a good start after moving from its beloved Vicente Calderon Stadium to the modern Metropolitano on the outskirts of Madrid. It made its debut in the new venue with a 1-0 win against Malaga, and followed it with a 2-0 victory against Sevilla.

But things started going wrong when Atletico made its European debut at the stadium in a Champions League match against Chelsea. It scored first but ended losing 2-1 after conceding in the last minute of injury time.

In its next league game, Atletico was ahead of Barcelona until late in the match, but conceded an equalizer by Luis Suarez and ended with a disappointing 1-1 draw. It also was held by Villarreal to a 1-1 draw, then endured its worst setback yet – a 1-1 draw against 10-man Qarabag in a result that practically ended its hopes of advancing from the group stage of the Champions League.

And with its title chances hanging by a thread in Europe, only a home victory on Saturday may keep Atletico in contention for a significant trophy this season.

The team’s faithful haven’t given up.

“I’m sure that we will eventually have the same success at the new stadium that we used to have at the Calderon,” Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak said. “We will see how it goes this weekend, but hopefully there will be a happy ending for us.”

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

AT HALF: Lukaku, Lingard have Man Utd up at West Brom (video)

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Romelu Lukaku didn’t celebrate much more than a fist pump following his match-opening goal against former teammates West Bromwich Albion.

[ MORE: Watch via NBCSports.com).

No one said anything about celebrating teammates’ goals, though.

Lukaku scored to give the Red Devils a 1-0 lead, then watched as Jesse Lingard‘s deflected lash left Ben Foster high and dry as United cruised into the break up two goals.

It’s 10th PL goal of the season for Lukaku, who has 15 in all competitions. For Lingard, it’s four and seven.

Here’s Lingard’s marker:

Celtic’s record unbeaten run ends at 69 matches

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Celtic’s unbeaten domestic run has ended at 69 matches, and it ended with a thud.

Tynecastle Park was the scene for a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Hearts, a defeat started by a 16-year-old’s first Scottish Premiership goal.

[ REPORT: Luiz done at Chelsea? ]

Harry Cochrane’s his name, and his 26th minute goal gave Hearts the lead, and it was 2-0 by halftime through Kyle Lafferty, the ex-Burnley and Norwich player.

David Milinkovic scored three minutes after halftime, as the wake-up call didn’t arrive at the break, and added a penalty kick late in the match.

Celtic has a two-point lead on second-place Aberdeen with a match-in-hand. Rangers sit five-points back.

Sixty-nine games! Remarkable in any league. Here’s what Rodgers had to say:

“But I also want to congratulate my players. To have gone through 69 games and this to be their first defeat; of course it’s a sore one when you are beaten like that but they can hold their heads up. They have been absolutely amazing over those 18 months.”

WATCH LIVE: West Brom vs. Manchester United

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The Hawthorns is the scene as Manchester United attempts to pull back into sole possession of second place on the Premier League table with a visit to West Bromwich Albion (Watch live at 9:15 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The Baggies have several regular starters on the bench, with Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, and Gareth McAuley (Allllll the Gareths!) getting a rest.

United will hand starts to Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata, with Anthony Martial on the bench with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

LINEUPS

West Bromwich Albion: Foster; Nyom, Hegazi, Evans, Gibbs, Krychowiak, Yacob, Livermore, Burke, McClean, Rondon. Subs: Myhill, Robson-Kanu, Brunt, Barry, Rodriguez, McAuley, Field.

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Jones, Smalling, Young, Herrera, Matic, Mata, Lingard, Rashford, Lukaku. Subs: Romero, Lindelof, Rojo, Shaw, McTominay, Ibrahimovic, Martial.

Report: Luiz done at Chelsea, perhaps as soon as January

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A report out of England says Chelsea defender David Luiz could be out the door in January.

Luiz, 30, has a knee injury and has played in just one match for Chelsea since a Halloween loss to Roma in the Champions League, one that supposedly culminated in a blow-up between the defender and manager Antonio Conte.

He was sold once before by Chelsea, shipped to Paris Saint-Germain for $66 million in 2014 before returning to Stamford Bridge in 2016 for $45 million.

[ MAN CITY-SPURS: 3 things |  Studs and duds ]

Luiz has made just one appearance, a Nov. 22 match in Qarabag, since that Roma loss. He returned to the bench against Liverpool before being diagnosed with a knee injury.

The report says Juventus is a possible destination for Luiz, though the Champions League could be a problem for both sides. Luiz is Cup-tied to Chelsea, and Juventus remains in the UCL as well.

And Chelsea would need reinforcements at the back. It’s back three has operated with Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, and Gary Cahill. Other options are Antonio Rudiger and 20-year-old Jake Clarke-Salter, which would be fine were Chelsea not alive in four competitions (The League Cup quarterfinals have the Blues hosting Bournemouth on Wednesday).

The power seems a bit more in Luiz’s hands thanks to some of Conte’s sanctioned loans. Kurt Zouma has arguably been Stoke City’s most consistent performer in an under siege unit, one of 10 backs on season-long loans. The most sense is to find reconciliation, presuming the dust-up is real, and move on in the summer if necessary.