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.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Halted World Cup flip-throw heard around the world

AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Milad Mohammadi knew the time was right for something special, but special isn’t always good.

And good is a subjective term. Cause to us this is very good, Milad.

The Iranian national team defender failed with a flip-throw bid in the final moments of a 1-0 loss to Spain on Wednesday at the World Cup in Russia.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

And this wasn’t like he illegally flipped or broke some other rule. No, like a kid trying an audacious jump into the deep end, Akhmat Grozny star Mohammadi just bailed and climbed in from the side (so to speak).

The kiss, the look skyward, the headbutt… all integral parts of a wonderful World Cup moment.

Renard, Morocco ‘very proud’ of unlucky national team

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If you would’ve told Morocco fans or their manager, Herve Renard, that they’d outshoot and outpossess both Iran and Portugal at World Cup, their next question would probably be, “So do we need to do against Spain to win Group B?”

Alas, Morocco lost a pair of 1-0 decisions to become the first team knocked out of the 2018 World Cup.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The Lions of Atlas fell to Iran in their opener on a stoppage time own goal after carrying 64 percent possession and a 13-8 advantage in shot attempts, then lost to a Cristiano Ronaldo fourth minute goal on Wednesday despite a 16-10 shot advantage and 53 percent of the ball.

“I’m very proud of the performance and I am very proud of my players, I’m very proud of this country,” Renard said.

With no hope of advancing to the next round, the manager is finding the experience bittersweet. From RTE:

“What I am sure of at this moment is that the entire Moroccan people is proud of this team. Of course it’s easier to play with a player who has one chance and he puts it away. But we are in Morocco.

“We have quality players. Despite the ups and downs of the game, we should have been more effective. Because, like in the first game, we had plenty of chances. I won’t blame anyone. That’s football. It’s always those who know how to be present in the box, the most gifted players, who make the difference. We took a lot of risks and we didn’t get our reward.”

It’s unlikely Morocco will hold either of those statistical advantages against Spain, especially a Spanish side yet to qualify, but there is plenty to like from the tournament aside from poor finishing quality.

But the performances of 19-year-olds Amine Harit (Schalke) and Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid) — not to mention Hakim Ziyech (25, Ajax) — seem to hint at a promise for 2022. And Renard’s men can still play spoiler for Spain, which is no small shockwave.