Real Madrid loss forces consideration of the unthinkable

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Given the quality Málaga has shown this year, it’s not a huge surprise that Real Madrid would lose in Andalusia. That they gave up three goals, never led, and benched their captain for a game that left them 16 points behind league-leading Barcelona adds emotional weight to the bottom line results.

Real Madrid aren’t just struggling. They’re sliding, and with the lack of urgency in the squad, it’s not difficult to imagine them free falling without a severe change of approach.

After a scoreless first half at the Rosaleda, Málaga midfielder Isco opened the scoring before an own goal pulled El Real back even. Substitute Roque Santa Cruz was resurrected to post a second half double, with a consolation goal from Karim Benzema leaving Real Madrid 3-2 losers.

The win moves Málaga fourth in Spain with 31 points through 17 games. They’re two points back of Real, who’ve only managed one point from their last two games.

Real Madrid’s closer to 13th place Sevilla than their rival Barcelona. If José Mourinho was dubious of Real’s title chances last week, he can no longer have any doubts. All that’s left for Los Blancos is Champions League (and, at this rate, qualifying for next year’s Champions League).

MORE: Implications of benching Iker Casillas

It’s almost unthinkable to suggest this, but you have to wonder if the José Mourinho-Real Madrid marriage is destined to end before the sides’ anticipated summer divorce. Still, all trends are pointing in that direction. An already down season is starting to get worse on all fronts. Real’s losing touch with Atlético in league, let alone Barcelona. They’re trailing in Copa del Rey to Celta Vigo, and they were clearly second best to Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League group.

For a club obsessed with winning a 10th European title, the team’s current slide is unacceptable. Were Los Merengues struggling yet still looked a good bet to win in February, the team’s current struggles could be accepted. But Mourinho seems to have no answers to a side that’s failing to execute. Their play suggest that, despite advantages all over the pitch, Real Madrid may struggle to get past Manchester United in Champions League’s knockout round.

The situation is starting to mirror the one that befell Mourinho at Chelsea. Despite the coach’s obvious qualities, Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich was put in a situation where the otherwise ludicrous notion of change for change’s sake could actually help. While decisions to fire a coach have to be considered in light of who’s available, the decision-making process changes when a coach’s message is starting to fall on deaf ears. A new man with new ideas might help, even if under most circumstances those ideas would be inferior to Mourinho’s.

MORE: Mourinho sends best wishes to Tito Vilanova

Eventually, Mourinho and Chelsea parted ways. The Blues went on to the 2008 Champions League final with Avram Grant, one of the worst managers in English soccer over the last five years. A year later, Carlo Ancelotti moved to London from Milan, and Chelsea reclaimed the league title.

The amazing part of the parallel is the speed with which things changed. True, Mourinho was coming off his first non-title year at Chelsea when he was dismissed, but in only three seasons, the man had crafted a legend. That he would leave the team within a year-plus of a title was shocking. But in Madrid, the turn has been just as quick. Just eight months ago, Real Madrid seemed destined for a domestic title and a Champions League final meeting with Barcelona (a meeting that never happened).

MORE: Kaka likely to stay, according to coach

Now, Real’s grasping at straws. They benched Iker Casillas today, a seemingly desperate attempt to inject some fear into a team that’s lacked urgency all season.

Soon, Florentino Perez may try the same plan. If Mourinho, destined to leave in May regardless, can’t get more out of this team, rolling the dice on change for change’s sake becomes a low risk move for El Real.

Sargent describes how it felt to score first Bundesliga goal

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Less than 12 months after signing his first professional contract, Joshua Sargent accomplished his dream of playing in the Bundesliga. Seconds later, he was on the scoreboard.

Just 88 seconds after coming on, Sargent provided a header to put the ball across the goal line and score his first Bundesliga goal in a Werder Bremen 3-1 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf. Sargent found the back of the net again two weeks later, against strong opposition in RB Leipzig.

[READ: “Pity” Martinez pictured in New York]

Following a short trip back to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, Sargent joined up with his teammates in South Africa for some warm-weather training during the Bundesliga winter break.

Sargent is looking for another taste of first team action as Werder Bremen resumes the Bundesliga season at Hannover on Saturday. Should Sargent continue to get regular minutes for either or both the Werder Bremen first or second teams, expect him to get another call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team for its European-based friendly matches in March.

‘Pity’ Martinez arrives in U.S., even with no official ATL UTD announcement

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Atlanta United hasn’t officially announced the signing of Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, but the talented Argentine attacker is in the U.S. now anyway.

Martinez posted a selfie of himself at Times Square in New York City, likely getting his first taste of anonymity after a star-studded run with River Plate in Buenos Aires.

[READ: Bielsa admits to spying all his “rivals”]

Following the rescheduled second leg of the Copa Libertadores final, Martinez and River Plate both confirmed to media post game that he was departing River Plate for Atlanta United, but despite this, the MLS club still hasn’t made the new official on their end. It’s unclear what the hold up is, whether it is transfer fee, agents fee, or Designated Player related. For the record, the LA Galaxy announced in December that it was re-signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a Designated Player contract, knowing all along that they couldn’t start the next MLS season with more than three DPs.

Previous reports out of Argentina have stated that Martinez’s transfer to Atlanta United could cost the club as much as $14 million including the base transfer fee to River Plate, agents fees, and potential add-ons.

A year ago, Atlanta United announced its club record signing, Ezequiel Barco, then-19, during the MLS Superdraft, but there was no Designated Player announcement at the league’s annual weekend symposium this year. Atlanta United has a challenge on its hands if Miguel Almiron isn’t sold to Europe this offseason. Under current MLS rules, it can’t have more than three players signed to Designated Player contracts.

Perhaps it could loan Barco, who struggled at times last season, or loan Martinez elsewhere, because Josef Martinez seems a lock to be in Atlanta for the foreseeable future.

Either way, Pity Martinez’s arrival in the U.S. could be a sign that an announcement could come soon from Atlanta United.

Reports: Chelsea edging closer to signing Higuain

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The transfer window appears to be heating up as we head towards the close in the next two weeks, with the first of many dominoes about to fall.

According to The Telegraph and reports out of Italy, Chelsea have now made an official offer to Juventus for Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on-loan with AC Milan. If confirmed, the report states that Chelsea will effectively take over Higuain’s loan for six months, and then the Premier League side will have the option to keep Higuain on loan for another 12 months or buy him outright.

[READ: Derby County stuns Southampton in FA Cup]

Higuain and Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri have history, as Higuain had arguably his best club season under the Italian manager at Napoli. Higuain scored 36 goals in Serie A, by far the top scorer in the league in 2016, which led to a $102.6 million move north to Juventus. However, it’s been an up and down time in the North of Italy for the Argentine. He scored 24 goals with Juve in his first year with the club but finished with just 16 last year before the Italian giants signed Cristiano Ronaldo, which effectively meant Higuain had to look for a new home.

News that a deal is close to completion is a big turnaround from a few weeks back, when even as Higuain struggled at Milan, the two sides didn’t seem close to breaking apart, and Juventus reportedly was insistent on recouping some of their transfer fee. However, following the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday, it appears both sides are ready to move on.

Higuain coming to Chelsea may be the first domino to fall. With Sarri getting his preferred striker, that frees up Alvaro Morata to return to his native Spain, although he’s reportedly set to join Atletico Madrid, instead of his former side Real Madrid. In addition, Chelsea has been shopping Michy Batshuayi, the top target for AS Monaco, where he would reunite with Thierry Henry, his former assistant coach with the Belgian National Team. The Telegraph reported that Chelsea wanted to recoup some of the $51.5 million it spent on Batshuayi but at this point, it’s looking more likely that he’ll move to Monaco on-loan or for a cut-rate fee, with his current loan to Valencia likely to be terminated shortly.

In Italy, the next domino to fall is Genoa’s Krzysztof Piątek, who is set to take Higuain’s place at AC Milan. Piatek has been the revelation of Serie A this season, with the Polish international scoring 13 Serie A goals in 19 games, just one goal behind Ronaldo. It’s unclear what the transfer fee will be for Genoa – Piatek joined the club last summer – but it’s likely to be a big one considering the premium on goals these days.

Once Higuain moves and the dominoes fall, we’ll see how it affects the rest of the Premier League, with other players becoming available as the transfer window enters its final weeks.

Henry’s Monaco draws 1-1 with Vieira’s Nice in French league

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PARIS (AP) Old friends Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira had to split the points as Monaco drew 1-1 with French Riviera rival Nice on Wednesday in a scrappy match featuring three video reviews.

Winger Allan Saint-Maximin put Nice ahead in the 30th minute and 17-year-old defender Benoit Badiashile equalized shortly after halftime, becoming the youngest scorer in the French top flight this season. Badiashile’s header from a corner was deemed to have crossed the line by the use of goal-line technology.

[MORE: Ligue 1 scores, schedule]

Henry and Vieira are in their first seasons coaching in France, but they go way back and hugged warmly before kickoff.

Living next to each other in London, they blossomed with Arsenal and were part of the famed “Invincibles” side which went a whole season unbeaten in the Premier League. The Frenchmen also won the 1998 World Cup and the European Championship in 2000, as well as playing together in the 2006 World Cup final.

Having started their illustrious careers as teenagers on the French Riviera – Henry with Monaco and Vieira with Cannes – they have come full circle as coaches.

Monaco had chances through Aleksandr Golovin and Rony Lopes, only for Nice to strike against the run of play following a sloppy mistake from Youssef Ait Bennasser. After he gave the ball away in midfield, Saint-Maximin took it off him easily and shrugged off defender Jemerson before shooting confidently past goalkeeper Diego Benaglio.

The goal was awarded before being checked and confirmed by referee Benoit Bastien using VAR. Moments before the interval, he consulted VAR again to send off Nice striker Ihsan Sacko for a late challenge on defender Benjamin Heinrichs.

“There’s a lot of frustration and questions about the decisions. The red card is very harsh,” Vieira said. “It wasn’t a dangerous action and it had a negative impact on us.”

Bastien used VAR for the third time to award a penalty in the 75th, ruling that Badiashile impeded right back Youcef Atal when images suggested Atal initiated contact with Badiashile before tumbling down.

Benaglio guessed correctly to keep out Saint-Maximim’s spot kick. Monaco almost won it near the end when Radamel Falcao hit the post with a curling effort.

“A point isn’t enough for us, but we could have been sat here talking about a defeat,” Henry said. “I have no opinion about the VAR, those are their decisions. Diego saved the penalty – so much the better for us.”

Monaco has not won at home this season and is 19th – only one point ahead of last-place Guingamp, which beat Rennes 2-1 at home.

OTHER MATCHES

VAR also played a key role elsewhere as Saint-Etienne equalized with a penalty in a 2-1 home win against Marseille.

Referee Antony Gautier awarded the penalty in the 56th after goalkeeper Steve Mandanda upended forward Wahbi Khazri.

Gautier then changed his mind after the linesman signaled Khazri was offside when receiving the pass, but further confusion ensued as he then consulted VAR and re-awarded the penalty, which was confidently tucked away by Khazri.

There was no debating Khazri’s late winner, struck ferociously from 20 meters past Mandanda. It was his 12th league goal of the season and leapfrogged Saint-Etienne over Lyon into third place ahead of their local derby on Sunday.

Netherlands midfielder Kevin Strootman headed Marseille ahead early on from Florian Thauvin‘s excellent cross. The defeat increases the pressure on ninth-place Marseille and its coach Rudi Garcia after a string of poor performances have left fans disgruntled and angry.

In other matches, forwards Moussa Dembele and Nabil Fekir netted late on as Lyon rallied to draw 2-2 at Toulouse.

Nimes moved into 11th spot after winning 1-0 at home to Nantes.