La Liga season preview, predictions: Can anyone outlast Real Madrid?

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Last season, La Liga closed up shop with its first champion not named Barcelona or Real Madrid since 2004. Manager Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to the mountain top, their 90 points enough to outlast the usual names.

But Simeone has lost Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois amongst others in his search to repeat, while both Real and Barca have loaded up in the transfer market (a task especially important to the latter, who won’t be able to make another transfer between the end of this window and January 2016).

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La Liga would seem as unbalanced as ever, with 10 teams within 10 points of relegation and no one within 17 points of the ‘Big Three’, but is that an illusion? Who will win the league, who can make a charge and who will go down? Glad you asked…

Relegation battlers: Eibar and Cordoba are both making their first trips through La Liga in a long, long time. In Eibar’s case, it’s the first ever trip to the top flight, while Cordoba last played 42 years ago. Deportivo La Coruna is back after one year in the Segunda Division.

All three will struggle to stay up, but Almeria and Getafe both barely escaped with their safety last season. Can Rayo Vallecano replicated its second half of the 2013/14, and avoid the garbage dump that was the first half? Throw in Elche and Granada, and almost half the teams in the league could go down without qualifying as a major surprise.

source: AP
Can Sevilla improve on Europa League triumph?

The challengers: Athletic Bilbao finished in fourth place, 20 back of the title and 17 back of the third slot, and have not done much to replace the loss of Ander Herrera to Manchester United. Sevilla finished fifth and won the UEFA Europa League, though you get the feeling their place in La Liga would’ve been higher without the focus on winning Europa.

Real Sociedad faces major challenges to replicating its success, as Claudio Bravo, Antoine Griezmann and Haris Seferovic all skipped town, while Valencia made enough intriguing additions to move forward.

If you’re looking for a dark horse, try Malaga. They lost Wily Caballero but ably replaced the Man City-bound keeper with Mexican World Cup star Guillermo Ochoa, while also adding Arthur Boka from Stuttgart, Roberto Rosales from Twente and Luis Alberto on loan from Liverpool. Another dark horse is the aforementioned Rayo Vallecano, which has added Gael Kakuta and Alejandro Pozuelo.

The title tilters: Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti faces the challenge of dealing with an embarrassment of riches after his club picked up James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Keylor Navas to its already jacked lineup (and what if Angel Di Maria doesn’t leave?).

Atletico added Griezmann, Mario Mandzukic and Raul Jimenez, but may end up struggling to stay with Barcelona and Real thanks to the adjustment period. Barcelona will be very strong once Luis Suarez returns from his four-month ban, but also faces a bit of uncertainty as names like Ivan Rakitic, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen acclimate to the Camp Nou and their teammates learn to live life without Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez.

Predicted order of finish (2013/14 finish)
1. Real Madrid (3)
2. Barcelona (2)
3. Sevilla (5)
4. Atletico Madrid (1)
5. Villarreal (6)
6. Valencia (8)
7. Malaga (11)
8. Rayo Vallecano (12)
9. Athletic Bilbao (4)
10. Celta de Vigo (9)
11. Espanyol (14)
12. Levante (10)
13. Real Sociedad (7)
14. Granada (15)
15. Getafe (13)
16. Almeria (17)
17. Cordoba (N/A)
18. Deportivo La Coruna (N/A)
19. Elche (16)
20. Eibar (N/A)

Valverde under pressure after dismal end to Barcelona’s season

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MADRID (AP) A couple of weeks ago, few questioned Ernesto Valverde as Barcelona coach.

The team had just won a second straight Spanish league title under his command and was close to making it to the Champions League final after beating Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semifinals.

The team was also through to the Copa del Rey final, where it would try to win an unprecedented fifth straight title in the competition.

Valverde seemed to be comfortably in control as the club moved closer to winning the treble.

Things quickly took a turn for the worse, though, and Valverde woke up on Sunday under added pressure and facing increased criticism.

Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on Saturday, a result that followed the disastrous elimination against Liverpool in the Champions League and added to the team’s woeful end to what had been a great season.

“A month ago we were celebrating the league title. Fifteen days ago we were thinking we had a chance at a treble,” Valverde said. “And we came up short in the decisive moments in both the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.”

The disappointing ending brought out a wave of criticism of Valverde, who last year also finished the season under a cloud after another humiliating Champions League elimination – that time it squandered a big first-leg lead against Roma in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

The criticism seems more pronounced this time, with some fans and local media calling for a change at the helm.

It didn’t take long after Barcelona’s loss to Valencia in Seville for club President Josep Bartomeu to come out and defend the coach.

“Ernesto has a contract and he remains the team’s coach,” Bartomeu said. “This loss was not the coach’s fault. The team created a lot of scoring chances but the ball didn’t go in, and what counts is how many times you score.”

Bartomeu had already defended Valverde after the demoralizing 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the Champions League, saying the club was not considering a change in command for next season.

Valverde said he was not worried and felt supported by the club despite the disappointing ending.

“It’s a bad feeling, we won’t deny it, but we have to stay strong,” he said. “What we want as coaches is to have a chance to come back. It’s tough to lose, it means something went wrong. We have to take the responsibility for it.”

Even if Valverde stays as expected, it doesn’t mean there won’t be changes for Barcelona.

Several players played below expectations this season, especially former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho, who was regularly jeered by fans and whose place with the club remains uncertain.

Bartomeu will likely have to go shopping in the offseason to try to improve the supporting cast for Lionel Messi, who had a fantastic year but wasn’t able to save the season by himself. When Messi looked ordinary, no one was able to take over his role as protagonist, and it proved costly in the decisive moments.

Young midfielder Frenkie de Jong is joining from Ajax and he should significantly boost the midfield, but Barcelona will definitely need to add to its attack, as Luis Suarez was the only true striker who performed consistently well. He couldn’t play in the Copa final after undergoing knee surgery and his absence was felt as the team struggled to capitalize on its scoring chances.

Veteran Gerard Pique is set to return for another season in defense, but there are still doubts about the fitness of Samuel Umtiti, who missed several matches this season because of injuries.

“We’ve been thinking about next season for a while, but it’s not the time to discuss the future,” Bartomeu said. “We ended with the Spanish league title, it was important. We couldn’t win the Copa, but we’ll just move on.”

Suarez defends surgery decision after Barca lose Copa del Rey final

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Luis Suarez has defended himself from criticism for undergoing knee surgery that prevented him from playing for Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.

The Uruguayan released a statement Sunday saying he had no option despite the timing of the final, which Barcelona lost 2-1 to Valencia on Saturday.

Suarez said he had to undergo surgery “against my will” after rupturing his meniscus against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

He said the surgery earlier this month had nothing to do with a cartilage issue that he had been nursing since the beginning of the season.

Barcelona won the Spanish league but finished the season on a low after being eliminated by Liverpool in the Champions League and losing the Copa final to Valencia.

Suarez scored 25 goals in 49 matches this season, second only to Lionel Messi on the scoring charts for Barcelona.

U-20 WC roundup: Mexico hammered by Japan; Italy top Ecuador

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action at the U-20 World Cup in Poland…

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Mexico 0-3 Japan

Mexico’s heavy defeat at the hands of Japan means El Tri‘s stars of tomorrow, who have zero points from their first two games, cannot finish top-two in Group B and can only advance to the knockout rounds as one of four third-place teams.

Taisei Miyashiro (21st and 77th minutes) and Kyosuke Tagawa (52nd) bagged the goals on Sunday, as Japan picked up its first victory and set up an all-important finale with Italy to decide who finishes top of the group on Wednesday.

Ecuador 0-1 Italy

Andrea Pinamonti scored the only goal in Italy’s 1-0 victory over 10-man Ecuador to reach the six-point mark and guarantee themselves a top-two finish and a place in the round of 16.

Elsewhere in the U-20 World Cup

Senegal 2-0 Colombia [ HIGHLIGHTS ]
Poland 5-0 Tahiti [ HIGHLIGHTS ]

Monday’s U-20 World Cup schedule

Honduras v. Uruguay — 12 p.m. ET
Qatar v. Ukraine — 12 p.m. ET
USA v. Nigeria — 2:30 p.m. ET
Norway v. New Zealand — 2:30 p.m. ET

Serie A: Atalanta, Inter snatch UCL places on wild final day

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s final-day action in Italy’s top flight…

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Sampdoria (9th) 2-0 Juventus (1st)

With their eighth straight scudetto long since clinched, Juve slumped their way to the season’s finish line without a win in their final five games (three draws), including Sunday’s 2-0 loss away to Sampdoria. It was 0-0 for 83 minute, until Gregoire Defrel (84th) and Gianluca Caprari (91st) bagged late goals for the victory.

Atalanta (3rd) 3-1 Sassuolo (11th)

Atalanta completed their fairytale season and finished third in a hugely dramatic, chaotic way befitting their rapid rise to Champions League relevance. They finished 17th and avoided relegation by three points in 2015.

First, they fell behind when Domenico Berardi scored in the 19th minute. They were level by the 35 minute, thanks to Duvan Zapata’s equalizer. Then, things got weird.

Berardi was sent off during a massive skirmish between the two sides while leaving the field for halftime. With the score 1-1, and both Inter Milan and AC Milan ahead after 51 minutes, Atalanta were headed for a fifth-place finish.

Alejandro Gomez put Atalanta ahead three minutes later, though, and Mario Pasalic doubled the advantage in the 65th.

Inter Milan (4th) 2-1 Empoli (18th – relegated)

At that 51-minute mark, Keita Balde’s opening goal put Inter ahead of Empoli, but the visitors equalized in the 76th, briefly dropping them to fifth.

That lasted all of five minutes, as Radja Nainggolan put Luciano Spaletti’s side back in front, where they would finish the season. The top-four finished the day exactly as it began — Atalanta in 3rd and Inter Milan in 4th, each on 69 points.

SPAL (13th) 2-3 AC Milan (5th)

For those five glorious minutes, AC Milan were headed back to the Champions League for the first time since 2014, and were set to do so at the expense of their local rivals.

Finishing fourth, but behind Inter, would have been fine, but finishing fourth and ahead of Inter would have been a dreamland outcome. Alas, it’s a fifth-place finish on 68 points and another season in the Europa League for the Rossoneri.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Bologna (10th) 3-2 Napoli (2nd – Saturday)
Frosinone (19th – relegated) 0-0 Chievo (20th – relegated – Saturday)
Roma (6th) 2-1 Parma (14th)
Torino (7th) 3-1 Lazio (8th)
Cagliari (15th) 1-2 Udinese (12th)
Fiorentina (16th) 0-0 Genoa (17th)