Spain: Alexis Sánchez hat trick, battle for fourth highlight La Liga’s return

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With Barcelona’s trip to Atlético Madrid less than a week away, eyes normally fixated on La Liga would be forgiven for looking into the distance, fixating on a battle that could define the Primera División campaign. After this weekend’s results, both Barça and Atleti have 49 points though 18 games. In a league where the leaders are one pace for 103 points, a victory head-to-head match could prove decisive.

This weekend, however, was about the buildup, one that saw Barcelona cruise past visiting Elche while Atlético snared three points from an increasing feisty Málaga. In the process, however, the weekend’s headlines were stolen by another stand out performance from Barça’s supporting cast and a fight slightly farther down the table.

With Messi out, Sánchez shines in Barça route

Lionel Messi was supposed to be back this weekend, but Barcelona decided not to push it. With a mid-week Copa del Rey match against Granada, Messi will have one more chance to get minutes ahead of next Saturday’s visit to the Vicente Calderón. This week, however, Barça would need somebody else to step up, with the returns of Xavi Hernández and Víctor Valdés balancing the continued absence of the team’s biggest star.

source: AP
Alexis Sanchez, after combining for 19 league goals in his first seasons with Barcelona, has already scored 11 times in La Liga’s first 18 rounds. (Photo: AP.)

But just as they did when Pedro Rodríguez went off on Dec. 22, Barcelona got a hat trick from part of its talented if overshadowed supporting cast. Scoring his ninth, 10th, and 11th goals of the season (tying him with Pedro for the team lead), Alexis Sánchez led Barcelona to a 4-0 win over visiting Elche, keeping the Blaugrana first ahead of next week’s showdown in Madrid.

For Sánchez, the performance continues the resurgence he’s experienced under head coach Gerardo Martino, one that’s seen the former Udinese man start to match assumptions that came with his $37 million transfer three years ago. In his first two years, however, Sánchez had only scored 19 league goals, and while that was only one less than the 20 he’d scored in three seasons in Italy, the now-25-year-old was expected to put up bigger numbers in Barcelona’s attack.

As Barça started to morph during its final season under Pep Guardiola, Sánchez’s role in the team became less certain, with a team build around Lionel Messi not having a clear role for the natural winger. At first, he was used as an along-the-line striker, but slowly Barcelona’s ditched that position, allowing Messi to float as a false nine. While on the surface that augers well for somebody whose best role is wide-to-in, Sánchez entered his third year in Catalonia having failed to live up to the hype that carried him to Spain.

Two years later, however, Martino has a more clearly defined step up. When everybody’s healthy, Messi (through the middle) and Neymar (on the left) are givens. The spot on the right, however, is open to competition.

In theory, that means Sánchez and Pedro are competing for a spot. In practice, both players have seen enough time. In 23 combined starts, the duo has scored 22 times. Even by Messi and Neymar’s standards (14 goals in 22 games), that’s stellar production.

Griezmann, Sociedad surge lands La Real on the cusp of fourth

That they finished fourth in May means we should only be so surprised that Real Sociedad find themselves in contention another Champions League spot, but after the struggles Jagoba Arrasate’s team experienced at the start of the season, 2012-13 was increasingly looking like a fairy tale. Winning only once in their first eight league games this season, La Real  were struggling to replicate the success experienced under Philippe Montanier, the French head coach who left for Rennes this summer. Add in an early injury to striker Imanol Agirretxe and some general regression and Real Sociedad looked unlikely to get back to fourth.

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Real Sociedad’s Antoine Griezmann sits third in La Liga with 12 goals after scoring Sunday against Athletic Bilbao. (Photo: Getty Images.)

After today’s 2-0 win against visiting Athletic Bilbao, however, Arrasate’s team has won five in a row, their only league loss since Oct. 5 coming at the Santiago Bernabeu. Thanks to goals from Antoine Griezmann and Rubén Pardo, Sociedad took full points from the team currently sitting fourth, pulling them within one point of Athletic in the process.

But as remarkable as La Real’s surge has been, Griezmann’s form has been equally stellar. Coming off a season in which the now-22-year-old scored 10 times in league (reaching double-digit goals for the first time), the French-born winger has already netted 12 times this season, the highest non-Diego Costa, non-Cristiano Ronaldo total in Spain. With five goals in six games, the France U-level winger is pushing for a place in Didier Deschamps’ squad for Brazil, even though (thanks in part to a suspension) he’s yet to make a senior-level appearance for Les Bleus.

Carlos Vela’s emergence in San Sebastián has garnered most of the headlines (particularly in this part of the world), but two years younger than his Mexican teammate, Griezmann is the bigger emerging star. Regardless, with their French attacker having found another level, Sociedad are ready to reclaim their Champions League spot, leaving their slow star in fall’s fading distance.

Elsewhere

  • Málaga 0, Atlético Madrid 1 – Koké’s 70th minute goal took full points for Diego Simeone’s team, who ended their hosts’ three-match unbeaten run. Atlético’s +36 goal difference, however, keeps them second behind Barcelona.
  • Valladolid 0, Real Betis 0 – Valladolid move even with 17th place Celta Vigo while failing to claim full points from the league’s last place squad.
  • Valencia 2, Levante 0 – Head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s first game with Los Che saw fellow Argentine Pablo Piatti score the opener just before halftime, with Sofiane Feghouli’s second of the season sealing victory for Valencia.
  • Almeria 3, Granada 0 – The home side moves three points clear of relegation with goals from Sebastián Dubarbier, Verza, and Aleix Vidal. Granada suffers its fourth loss in five.
  • Sevilla 3, Getafe 0 – Ivan Rakitic notched his eighth goal of the season as Unai Emery’s side post moves into sixth place, the team unbeaten in league since Nov. 2.
  • Osasuna 1, Espanyol 0 – Álvaro Cejundo’s 33rd minute goal holds up as the hosts run their unbeaten streak to three.

Others
Barcelona 4, Elche 0
Real Sociedad 2, Athletic Bilbao 0

Monday
Real Madrid vs. Celta Vigo
Rayo Vallecano vs. Villarreal

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Barcelona 18 16 1 1 53 12 41 9-0-0 7-1-1 49
Atlético Madrid 18 16 1 1 47 11 36 9-0-0 7-1-1 49
Real Madrid 17 13 2 2 49 21 28 7-0-1 6-2-1 41
Athletic 18 10 3 5 26 23 3 7-2-0 3-1-5 33
Real Sociedad 18 9 5 4 35 23 12 6-2-1 3-3-3 32
Sevilla 18 8 5 5 35 29 6 5-2-2 3-3-3 29
Villarreal 17 8 4 5 27 18 9 4-3-2 4-1-3 28
Valencia 18 7 2 9 25 29 -4 5-1-4 2-1-5 23
Getafe 18 7 2 9 20 30 -10 4-2-3 3-0-6 23
Espanyol 18 6 4 8 22 24 -2 4-2-3 2-2-5 22
Málaga 18 5 5 8 19 23 -4 4-0-5 1-5-3 20
Levante 18 5 5 8 17 27 -10 2-3-3 3-2-5 20
Granada 18 6 2 10 15 25 -10 2-0-7 4-2-3 20
Almería 18 5 4 9 20 32 -12 2-3-4 3-1-5 19
Osasuna 18 5 3 10 15 28 -13 3-2-4 2-1-6 18
Elche 18 4 5 9 16 27 -11 2-2-5 2-3-4 17
Celta Vigo 17 4 4 9 21 27 -6 1-4-4 3-0-5 16
Valladolid 18 3 7 8 21 29 -8 2-4-3 1-3-5 16
Rayo Vallecano 17 4 1 12 16 40 -24 2-0-6 2-1-6 13
Betis 18 2 5 11 15 36 -21 2-3-4 0-2-7 11

Chicharito says Mexican team “always feels welcome” in the United States

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Mexico will take on Wales on Monday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA as they warm up for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Playing in the United States is nothing new for the USMNT’s southern neighbors, and it doesn’t phase them. In fact, they love it.

Star striker Chicharito told reporters that he and the rest of the squad is more than happy playing north of the border, because according to him, apart from a pair of venues, they can’t even tell they’re on the road.

“We always feel welcome here,” Chicharito said. “It’s like our second country, if we can say that, apart from Columbus [Ohio] and apart from the stadium in Miami when we played Colombia…those two stadiums, that’s the only time I’ve felt that we were the away team.”

Chicharito knows that the high population of his countrymen and women in the United States helps the Mexican team feel close to home when they play over the border. He’s all for the melting pot of the US.

“We feel at home [in the United States],” Chicharito said. “We have plenty of Mexicans here, so I don’t know what else to tell you, we feel welcome, we feel glad, happy to be in touch with those people here. They are sacrificing a lot of things, and they are all enjoying their lives that they decide to live in the USA…it’s great. It’s great when you come to another country and you feel like you are home. You see all the stadium green, shouting and screaming your names, screaming your goals, so yeah, it’s great.”

Mexico will play Wales on Monday at 9:00 p.m. ET, and will return home to take on Scotland at Azteca on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET.

England international Delph expecting child in middle of World Cup

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England international Fabian Delph could face quite the dilemma if England advances past the group stage of the World Cup.

Delph’s wife Natalie is expecting the couple’s third child on June 30, which is two days after their pivotal group stage match against Belgium, and two days before the squad would take the field July 1 for its Round of 16 game should they win Group G. If they finish second in the group, they would play their Round of 16 game on July 3.

When asked what his plans are, Delph joked that his wife would manage on her own. “She’s tough, she’s a Yorkshire lass so she’ll deal with it,” Delph said with a smile.

He then coughed up the truth: they’re not quite sure what the plan is.

“We’re not 100% certain, with a game on the 28th there might be an opportunity to fly back and then get back fast,” he said. “[England manager] Gareth [Southgate] has been fantastic. There’s nothing more important than family to me – family always comes first and always will.”

There’s another dilemma that Southgate must navigate involving Delph. The 28-year-old is a natural winger, but played wing-back in Pep Guardiola‘s title-winning system for much of the year and saw a massive uptick in form in the new role, playing in place of the injured Benjamin Mendy. Southgate must decide where he wants to deploy Delph – if at all – and if he wishes to fit his formation and tactics to mold Delph’s season under Guardiola.

Authorities drop assault charges against Hope Solo

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KIRKLAND, Wash. (AP) — Prosecutors in Washington state have dropped domestic violence charges against former U.S. national team star goalkeeper Hope Solo.

Solo was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault in 2014 after police said she assaulted two family members at a home in Kirkland, east of Seattle. The case was delayed by appeals.

KING-TV reports that city prosecutors dropped the charges Wednesday, saying the witnesses in the case wanted to move on with their lives and did not want to participate in a trial. An attorney for Kirkland, Melissa Osman, wrote in court documents that the circumstances were unlikely to be repeated.

The longtime national team goalkeeper and two-time Olympic gold medalist recently ran unsuccessfully for president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. She has called for equal pay and equal treatment for the U.S. women’s team.

Mark Hughes signs new long-term contract at Southampton

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Mark Hughes has gone from Stoke City outcast to Southampton savior in little under six months time.

The Welsh boss was let go from Stoke City with the Potters 18th in the table and headed towards eventual relegation, but he was picked up by fellow relegation candidates Southampton after the departure of Mauricio Pellegrino. He steered the club to safety, finishing three points above the drop in 17th.

With the Saints in the top flight for another season, the club has announced the signing of Hughes to a new three-year contract.

“Mark, Eddie and I are thrilled to have signed long-term contracts with the club. It was the only option we considered, having spent the last eight weeks with the club,” Hughes said of himself and his assistant coaches Mark Bowen and Eddie Niedzwiecki. “Now it is vital that we take the unbelievable support we received from the fans during the last few games into next season. The staff and the players will work hard every day to deliver the success this club deserves, and with everyone pulling together we will achieve our goals.”

Hughes guided Stoke City to three consecutive ninth-placed finishes, the highest the club had ever finished in the English top flight, but they finished 13th last year and regressed even further this campaign. The sale of playmaker Marko Arnautovic was particularly damaging, and the club scored just 35 goals in 38 games as a result.

At Southampton, Hughes took over a club that sat in 17th with just eight matches to go. He lost three Premier League games in a row to start his tenure and only won two league matches with Saints the rest of the way, but managed to keep the club barely afloat.