Spain roundup: Barcelona finally falls from first; Atlético alone on top

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If the most diehard of Barcelona fans needed further proof their team is no longer at its Guardiola-era heights, they need only open up their favorite sports daily Monday morning. If they’re impatient, they can check here, here, or here, though no self-respecting Culé would get their information form the latter. Still, every source delivers the same shocking ews. For the first time in 59 games, Barcelona does not lead La Liga, their 3-2 home loss to Valencia seeing Atlético Madrid claim sole possession of first place.

Taking advantage of Barcelona’s slip, Atleti moved three points clear with their 4-0 win over Real Sociedad – an unexpectedly lopsided result against a La Real side that’s fought their way back into Champions League contention. Sunday at the Vicente Calderón, they may as well have been Real Betis. Atlético closed with three goals in regulation’s final 18 minutes to claim their 18th win of the year, a result that reinforced the gravity of Barcelona’s slip.

Gerardo Martino’s team hadn’t lost at home in league since April 2012, but they have given Atlético other chances this season to claim the top spot. Recently Barcelona were held to a 1-1 draw at Levante only to see the Colchoneros waste their chance to go top after they were drawn at home by Sevilla. On Sunday, however, David Villa’s first half goal gave Diego Simeone’s side all it’d need, with second half scores from Diego Costa, Miranda, and the recently returned Diego allowing Atlético to put up the Barcelona-esque scored.

”This is something nice for the players, who have made such effort and go into every single game with the same intensity and work ethic,” Simeone said of his team’s effort on a night the Calderón honored the departed Luis Aragonés. ”Luis would appreciate the team’s courage, since he was a courageous type with character, just like this team.”

The Blaugrana couldn’t find the same killer instinct on Saturday. Despite going up through Alexis Sánches after seven minutes, Barça approached halftime with only a one-goal advantage. Shortly before the whistle, Valencia was able to steal a equalizer from Dani Perejo despite being second best for most of the half.

Three minutes into the second, Pablo Piatti’s goals saw Los Che claim an unlikely lead. A Ricardo Costa penalty gave Lionel Messi an equalizer in the 54th, but when Paco Alcácer responded five minutes later, the last salvo in Barcelona’s upset had been cast. Jordi Alba’s 78th minute dismissal sealed their fate.

“I would say to [my team] that everything continues, that we may lose the leadership of the league, but that we will still continue to fight,” ,” Martino said after the match, taking a broader view on a loss the redefined the top of Spain’s standings.

“We will try to recover the lost ground on our title rivals. We conceded chances to Valencia and they took advantage of them. We need to keep going and keep in mind how much this hurt us today.”

Barcelona could point to the loss of an injured Neymar, but the Brazilian’s other absences hadn’t slowed them down. Andrés Iniesta could only give them 25 minutes, while Carles Puyol was out. At each level of the field, Barcelona could make an excuse, none of which can offset the loss of their home winning streak, the end to their season-and-a-half run a top the league, or their disadvantage on a seemingly improving Atlético.

As Atlético incorporates players like Diego and Jose Sosa while continuing to mature into their contenders’ identity, Barcelona has new reason to doubt. Not only have they failed to win in three meetings this season with Atlético, but their home invincibility is no more. Their loss to Valencia could serve as a reminder that a huge swath of Spain present potential downfalls, or it could plant a seed of doubt that hasn’t been present in since before Pep Guardiola.

With Manchester City coming up in Champions League, we’ll soon have our answers. Right now, the two best teams in Europe appear to be Bayern Munich and City. Barcelona and Atlético each had claims to be in that picture, but having won only one of their last four league games, the Blaugrana are suddenly more vulnerable than their recent pedigree would imply.

Real Madrid take point at San Mamés

El Real’s result in Basque Country seems like a good opportunity to note the difference between their level and that of Atlético and Barcelona. But we hammered that home last week. Besides, one point at Athletic is not a poor result. Although Atlético Madrid claimed the first win at the new San Mames earlier this week (in Copa del Rey), comparing Real Madrid to their crosstown rivals is becoming an increasing unforgiving standard. By more reasonable measures, the Merengues got a valuable point against the league’s fourth place team.

Despite ceding control of the ball — their new 4-3-3 allowing them to manage play without dominating possession — Real Madrid went up early in the second half, Jesé grabbing a 65th minute opener while taking Gareth Bale’s spot in the starting lineup. Eight minutes later, however, Ibai scored with his second touch after coming on for Iker Munain, giving Athletic an equalizer that would hold through full time.

“In the first-half Athletic pressed a lot and that made it difficult to play the ball on the ground so we played more on the counter-attack,” Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti said after the match.

“In the second-half, the intensity of their pressure dropped a bit and we played better in possession, we scored and had good control of the game.

“Bilbao scored a fantastic goal, but in general I personally am satisfied with how Real Madrid played.”

Kicking off in the last game of the day, Real Madrid knew they would pass Barcelona with a win. Their inability to grab one will surely disappoint them, even if may take a few days for that perspective to settle in.

The more lasting disappointment, however, may be Cristiano Ronaldo’s suspension, with the Blancos star set to miss three games after seeing straight red in the 75th minute. Though the decision appeared to be harsh, Ronaldo is still set for a prolonged absence, one that could leave a recently goal-starved Real Madrid susceptible to draws without their biggest star.

They do lead the league in goals (61), but since switching to their new formation earlier this month, Real Madrid have only scored three goals in a game once – the five-goal outburst the saw Real Betis fire Juan Carlos Garrido fired. Sunday against Athletic, that lack of punch cost them, leaving El Real  in third place despite a chance to pass Barcelona.

Elsewhere

  • Granada 1, Celta Vigo 2 – Celta’s won three out of four and reached 12th after an 88th minute goal from Augusto Fernandez gave Luis Enrique’s team their seventh win of the season.
  • Levante 0, Rayo Vallecano 0 – The possession-hogging Vallecano were able to retain 58 percent of the ball and limit Levante to two shots on goal, but Paco Jémez’s side remains in 19th place after their scoreless draw.
  • Getafe 0, Valladolid 0 – Getafe is winless in league since Nov. 29 after a match that saw the teams combine for three shots on goal.
  • Málaga 3, Sevilla 2 – Sevilla falls for the second game in row as Málaga stops their slide toward relegation, with late goals from Samuel and Duda giving them the home side its first win in five.
  • Elche 1, Almeria 0 – Christian Herrera’s 58th minute goal holds up, leaving Almeria within two points of the bottom three.
  • Real Betis 2, Espanyol 0 – The Verdiblancos’ first win under Gabriel Calderón gives the team new hopes of survival, though Ruben Castro’s late double still leaves them eight points from safety.

Others
Barcelona 2, Valencia 3
Atlético Madrid 4, Real Sociedad 0
Athletic Club 1, Real Madrid 1

Monday
Villarreal vs. Osasuna

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Atlético Madrid 22 18 3 1 56 14 42 10-2-0 8-1-1 57
Barcelona 22 17 3 2 59 16 43 10-0-1 7-3-1 54
Real Madrid 22 17 3 2 61 22 39 9-0-1 8-3-1 54
Athletic 22 13 4 5 42 28 14 9-3-0 4-1-5 43
Villarreal 21 11 4 6 39 22 17 6-3-2 5-1-4 37
Real Sociedad 22 10 6 6 42 34 8 7-2-1 3-4-5 36
Sevilla 22 8 7 7 41 37 4 5-2-3 3-5-4 31
Valencia 22 8 4 10 31 35 -4 5-2-4 3-2-6 28
Levante 22 7 7 8 22 30 -8 3-5-3 4-2-5 28
Espanyol 22 7 5 10 25 29 -4 5-2-4 2-3-6 26
Celta Vigo 22 7 4 11 29 35 -6 3-4-4 4-0-7 25
Getafe 22 7 4 11 22 34 -12 4-4-4 3-0-7 25
Málaga 22 6 6 10 22 29 -7 5-1-5 1-5-5 24
Granada 22 7 3 12 20 29 -9 3-1-8 4-2-4 24
Elche 22 6 6 10 20 32 -12 4-3-5 2-3-5 24
Osasuna 21 6 4 11 18 34 -16 3-2-5 3-2-6 22
Almería 22 6 4 12 22 41 -19 3-3-4 3-1-8 22
Valladolid 22 4 8 10 24 37 -13 3-4-3 1-4-7 20
Rayo Vallecano 22 5 2 15 21 51 -30 2-0-8 3-2-7 17
Betis 22 3 5 14 20 47 -27 3-3-6 0-2-8 14

Cole returns to Chelsea as youth team coach

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One of Chelsea’s best players in club history is back at his old stomping grounds in a new role.

Chelsea finally confirmed over their social media channels that former left back Ashley Cole is back at the club coaching in the academy, helping the next generation of stars grow and learn the games. Specifically, Cole is coaching the U-15 squad.

[READ: Top Premier League Storylines]

“I’m also doing my badges at the moment and so being here at Chelsea means I have the chance to coach every day, whereas maybe if I wasn’t working at a club it would be hard for me to get the hours in,” Cole told Chelsea’s website. “I’m learning not just how to be a coach and how to speak to people in a different environment but the side of coaching that you don’t see like planning the sessions and setting up the equipment.

“As a player, you just turn up for a session and do it. If it’s a possession drill, you just arrive and try to keep the ball but now I’m getting to understand that there are always ideas behind a particular session or practice. Organization has to be key and those are the little details that it takes to be a great coach.”

While plenty from Cole’s era have moved into the media for lucrative punditry roles, it’s nice to see players like Cole and his former teammate Frank Lampard, now Chelsea coach, go into coaching to help pass on some of the great lessons they’ve learned during their careers. .

Cole said in the interview that he wasn’t sure what was next after playing three seasons for the LA Galaxy and then joining Lampard at Derby County for the second half of last season. He added that he got his first taste of coaching kids while with the Galaxy, helping some of the academy players and taking part in video sessions.

“The Academy are very good at giving ex-players a route back to the club and a chance to learn as coaches,” Cole said. “They’re eager to bring in people who understand what it means to be at Chelsea and what it means to wear the badge. You have to be a top player to play for Chelsea so they want those top ex-players influencing and trying to help the next generation develop and be better players.”

MLS Playoffs Preview: 1st round kicks off on Saturday

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After a two-week break, MLS is back, and with some outstanding matchups as the first round of the playoffs kicks off on Saturday.

Here’s a closer look at Saturday’s matchups in the Western Conference and Eastern Conference.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]


2. Atlanta United v. 7. New England Revolution — Saturday, 1 p.m. ET

Atlanta United begins its title defense against the most successful coach in MLS history, Bruce Arena.

Atlanta United heads into the match at home a bit shorthanded. Miles Robinson suffered a left hamstring strain while on international duty with the U.S. Men’s National Team, leaving veteran centerback Michael Parkhurst to start alongside Leandro Gonzalez Pires. There’s also some questions over whether Ezequiel Barco and Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez will start together in midfield.

All that being said, Atlanta is still one of the best teams in MLS and as long as they have Josef Martinez, they’ll be a threat to make a deep run in the playoffs. The Revs have been a revelation since Bruce Arena took over in May, and no one knows the MLS playoffs more than he. Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou have been terrific this summer for the Revs while the defense, anchored by centerbacks Andrew Farrell and Michael Mancienne and 25-year-old goalkeeper Matt Turner have kept opponents off the board.

Atlanta certainly has the edge here, especially at home, but never count out a Bruce Arena team.

2. Seattle Sounders v. 7. FC Dallas — Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Unlike in previous years, the Seattle Sounders never needed to make a patented late-season push to make it into the playoffs. This time, the Sounders were solid throughout, especially thanks to a start that included five wins in six games. With Jordan Morris in peak form and Roman Torres and Kim Kee-Hee patrolling the middle of the backline, Seattle sure looks like an MLS Cup contender. Of course, they’d have to get past LAFC first, no small task.

For FC Dallas, in a way, they’re just happy to be here. It seems like forever, but was less than a year ago when club legend Oscar Pareja left for the Club Tijuana manager spot. In his place was local soccer legend and former FC Dallas academy director Luchi Gonzalez, and with a mostly young squad of players, Gonzalez has proven he could guide them to the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt though that one of the few veterans, Zdenek “Cobra” Ondrášek, has been on fire the last two months and just scored for the Czech Republic against England. The Sounders should take care of business at home, but Jesus Ferreira and Paxton Pomykal can create something out of nothing and could make Saturday’s match interesting/

4. Toronto FC v. 5. DC United — Saturday, 6 p.m. ET

With the regular season concluded and the start of single-elimination matches, we’re on the verge of saying goodbye to Wayne Rooney at any moment, and it could come as early as Saturday.

Thanks to a win and some other favorable results, Toronto FC jumped up in the standings and earned a home playoff match. It doesn’t hurt that it’s been very solid to close out the season, going unbeaten in its last 10 matches – though to be fair, that span only included four wins. Worryingly for TFC is that striker Jozy Altidore didn’t practice on Thursday after missing the international break with yet another muscle injury. However, his Canadian international teammates Jonathan Osorio, Liam Fraser, and Richie Laryea are returning to the club side on a high after beating the U.S.

For D.C. it’s been an up and down last few weeks. They picked up huge wins over Portland and Seattle in the final two months of the season, only to settle for scoreless draws against the porous New York Red Bulls and abject horror show in FC Cincinnati. As always, there will be plenty of pressure on Rooney to produce some magic, and his side will need it if they want to keep their season alive. Toronto, playing at home, has the edge here.

3. Real Salt Lake v. 6. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 10 p.m. ET

Mike Petke was fired by Real Salt Lake in mid-August after serving a two-week suspension for berating the referee – and saying some unacceptable terms – after a Leagues Cup game in July. In his place, interim coach Freddy Juarez has done quite well with the squad, winning seven games in the final three months of the season to cruise into a top-three place and earn a home game in the playoffs.

Former Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers defender Nedum Onuoha has been a rock at the back alongside youngster Justin Glad, and RSL may have the most underrated attack in the league. Albert Rusnak, Damir Kreilach and Jefferson Savarino have all been brilliant at points this season. If the trio put it together, RSL could be a dark horse for the title.

The Timbers beat expectations a year ago as Giovanni Savarese led his team to another final – his fourth straight final as a coach. It will be an incredible achievement if they make it this time around. Portland has elite offensive capabilities when everyone is firing on all cylanders. Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, and even Dairon Asprilla can create moments of magic, while Jeremy Ebobisse has had a breakout season with 11 goals, though he’s missed a few he’ll want back. The issue is the team defensively, and they’ll have to be on their game to slow to RSL’s front three on the road.

Of course, the Timbers did win both matchups against RSL this season, so even on the road, they should be confident they can get it done again.

Spanish FA once again opposes La Liga match in U.S.

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For the second consecutive season, La Liga and Relevant Sports have proposed a league match to take place this winter in the U.S.

And once again, the La Liga proposal doesn’t have the support of its national soccer federation.

[READ: La Liga wants to move Villarreal-Atletico Madrid to Miami]

Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), told reporters on Thursday that it would oppose the match taking place outside of Spain’s borders, keeping a consistent line in the sand on how far globalization can go in soccer.

“It would disrupt the competition,” Rubiales said, via AS. “To play a game in Miami, La Liga needs permission from five bodies that it doesn’t have.”

The five bodies Rubiales referred to are the RFEF, FIFA, CONCACAF, U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Last time around, Relevant Sports and La Liga announced a long-term, lucrative marketing contract to expand the brand’s footprint in the Americas, and soon after, petitioned to move Girona’s home game against Barcelona to Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the home stadium of Relevant Sports owner Stephen Ross and his Miami Dolphins.

Ultimately, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Relevant Sports were unable to get permission from the RFEF or FIFA to hold the event outside Spain and it went off as expected in Girona. At the time, Spain’s player’s union and fans groups opposed the move. Tebas has filed a lawsuit in Spain to try to force the RFEF to approve their request, but it seems unlikely to be awarded and it surely doesn’t provide any good will between the two parties.

There’s been plenty of talk about bringing league games abroad before, but it has just been talk so far. The Premier League considered adding an extra game to the season to be played all over the world, but never went through with creating plans for matches.

Associations – not leagues, to be clear – have brought things like Super Cups abroad. For example, the RFEF moved the 2018 Spanish Super Cup to Tangiers, Morocco, while the France Football Federation has brought its national Super Cup match to both the U.S. and Montreal, Canada in recent years. However, the argument in favor of bringing those games abroad is they’re basically meaningless. Meanwhile, one result in a league season could – in theory – determine whether a team is relegated or not, especially if the margin is three points or less.

We could see another legal fight on our hands, so watch this space, there’s plenty more to come.

Rodgers excuses Maddison’s behavior after England departure

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Leicester City and England midfielder James Maddison made headlines for the wrong reasons after he was pictured last week watching the England match at the Czech Republic from a casino.

Despite the negative attention from Maddison’s decision to watch the game at that venue, he has the backing of his club manager, Brendan Rodgers.

“The kid went away with the international team and took ill while he was away,” Rodgers said, via the Guardian. “He wanted to stay and hopefully be ready for the second game. But the England medical staff – which I can understand, as he had flu and they didn’t want that to spread to his teammates – decided it’s best for him to leave the camp. So he leaves, gets some tablets with our guys at the club, then he feels better.

“He watched the game at home on his own on the Friday and then goes out at half-time – probably he’ll make better decisions in his life but he went to a casino on his own to sit and watch the second half by a poker table. The suggestions are he left England purposelessly and then goes to a casino but that’s totally not the case at all. But his eyes have been opened now to the wider world in terms of what he did. He knows in hindsight he’s made a mistake.”

Considering all that went on during England’s international break, from the poor performance in Prague to the horrible racism endured in Bulgaria, this is a bit of a silly scandal. To be honest, as long as Maddison is taking care of his body and himself, why does it matter if he was at a casino, or a pub, or anywhere?

However, there’s no denying that the optics look bad. Folks didn’t know that he arrived to England camp with the flu, or a flu-like illness at least, and the England medical staff are right to send him away to make sure no one else gets sick. He may have been feeling better by Friday and wanted to get out of the house. I think we’ve all been there after being sick for a few days.

The most important lesson for Maddison is to learn that his actions, out of context, can be misunderstood. In terms of soccer, after Ross Barkley’s performance for England, Maddison will have to prove in his club form that he should still have a place in the England team for the near future. There’s only two more international dates left before the 2020 Euros, so time is running out for Maddison to make an impact to Southgate.