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Griezmann standing in way of Barcelona’s title march

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann is almost single-handedly keeping Atletico Madrid in the Spanish league title race.

With the league at its halfway point, Griezmann is challenging Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for the status of most valuable player for their clubs.

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While Messi is beyond doubt the top player in Spain – and more – Atletico has stayed in second place behind Barcelona almost exclusively thanks to the goals of Griezmann.

The France forward has done more than any other of his teammates, especially in recent weeks, to keep Atletico five points behind Barcelona. And with Sevilla and Real Madrid already 10 points adrift, Griezmann’s Atletico looks like the only serious challenger standing in the way of Barcelona’s title defense.

Griezmann is on a five-game scoring streak and he has scored Atletico’s last six goals – five in the league and one in the Copa del Rey. He has found the net nine times and made six direct passes for goals in the league this season.

Messi leads the league with 17 goals scored, but he also has Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele combining to add another 21 goals between them.

In contrast, nobody else at Atletico has scored more than two goals in the league. Indeed, the second key player at Atletico is goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who anchored a defense that has allowed a league-low 13 goals.

Griezmann secured another win for Diego Simeone’s side on Sunday when he confidently stepped up to the spot and blasted a penalty kick to secure a 1-0 victory over Levante.

There were inspired runs by Victor “Vitolo” Machin and a couple of attempts by Angel Correa and Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion, but Atletico’s attack mainly depended on the quickness, speed and scoring touch of Griezmann.

Griezmann, however, said he was not satisfied with Atletico’s attack.

“We need to have more poise when we arrive to the opponent’s area, that’s what our coach says,” Griezmann said. “Maybe we have to shoot when we pass, and vice versa. It’s not easy. At the end, a 1-0 win is worth the same as 8-0, so we are happy.”

Griezmann helped France to the World Cup title last summer – a feat that has eluded Messi’s Argentina – shortly after guiding Atletico to the Europa League title.

He also turned down an offer to join Messi at Barcelona, opting to remain at the club where he is the undisputed star.

Now he is proving to be Atletico’s best reason to dream about winning another Spanish league title, or even an elusive Champions League crown.

“We all dig down deep and do our part when things get tough,” Griezmann said. “Without my teammates, I couldn’t do anything.”

WILLIAMS’ BRACE

Athletic Bilbao’s Inaki Williams has everything a team could want in a forward – speed, power and a good work ethic.

Everything, except for the ability to score lots of goals.

The 24-year-old Williams finally broke a two-year scoring drought at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium to lead it to a much-needed 2-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday.

Williams netted both goals, and they were almost worth such a long wait for fans.

Williams got his first goal when he cut back from the left side and blasted a strike into the far corner of the net.

He topped that in the 84th with an eye-catching, 50-meter solo run that started in Bilbao’s territory. Williams used one touch to tap the ball forward before he sped between two defenders, streaked to the area, and rounded goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik before gliding the ball home.

“What I have experienced today is incredible,” Williams said. “Personally, I am so happy to score at San Mames after such a long time. It is very important.”

Williams also scored Bilbao’s winning goal last round on the road. Its first back-to-backs wins of the season were good enough to lift the Basque club out of the relegation zone.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Vela leaves door open for Barcelona move

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LAFC striker Carlos Vela has been the surprise subject of new rumors of a January move to Barcelona, and when asked about the prospect of such a departure from the United States, the 29-year-old wasn’t about to rule out the La Liga giants.

ESPN Deportes first reported the move, and while they say such a deal is “unlikely,” it’s not a complete uncertainty. They did report, however, that Barcelona has yet to make a permanent bid and that a loan deal has not yet been floated.

When ESPN contacted Vela for comment on the subject, he shed responsibility, suggesting he’s not even in control of his immediate future. “They are issues for the clubs and agents,” Vela said to ESPN. “I’m relaxed, working on the preseason and the most important thing is to be happy in the place you are. In the future we’ll see what happens.”

While Vela said he is “happy” at LAFC, he also made it sound like the wheels are in motion to explore his options. “Whatever I may decide or happens I’ll be happy because I’m loving being in Los Angeles with my team enjoying the day-to-day and I don’t have anything to lose in any case.”

Vela came up as a youth player in the Chivas Guadalajara setup, and moved to Arsenal in 2006. He made 64 appearances for the Gunners but spent a significant time out on loan at clubs like West Brom and Osasuna. He made a permanent switch to Real Sociedad in 2012 and spent six seasons there before joining LAFC in the club’s inaugural season in Major League Soccer. He scored 14 goals in 28 MLS appearances, which has apparently caught the eye of Barcelona.

Vela’s session at MLS Media Day was cancelled Sunday after he failed to show.

Dembele hurts leg in Barcelona victory

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Ousmane Dembele injured his left leg during the second half of Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Leganes in the Spanish league on Sunday.

The 21-year-old France forward slipped while trying to dribble past an opponent, causing him to fall back on his own leg.

After being attended to by team doctors he limped off and was substituted.

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde says it seemed his player had “slightly twisted” his ankle, but more tests are planned on Monday.

Dembele scored Barcelona’s opening goal, taking his tally to 13 goals in all competitions this season as he excels as a strike partner to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Longtime Mourinho assistant Faria earns first managerial job

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Rui Faria, best known for his 17 years as a Jose Mourinho assistant, has earned his first managerial job, taking charge of Qatari side Al Duhail.

The 43-year-old Faria has followed Mourinho since 2001 at Uniao Leiria, where he linked up with the fellow Portuguese coach and followed him to Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea again, and then Manchester United. The two parted ways last year, with Faria leaving Manchester United last May.

Without a job since leaving Old Trafford and Mourinho recently fired at Manchester United last month, Faria has chosen to finally venture out on his own.

Faria has been linked with a number of jobs in Europe over the years, with teams always looking for a coach with the experience and pedigree Faria has built despite not ever holding a head coaching job. In the past, he has been linked with clubs like Arsenal and Aston Villa. Mourinho said amid links to Arsenal last summer that “if my friend one day has the possibility of a big job, I would help him to pack and carry the bags and to wish him luck.”

Al Duhail won the Qatari Stars League champions last season under manager Nabil Maaloul, who left his post at Tunisia to take charge of the team last July. The two parties went their separate ways 15 days ago. The Doha club claimed Faria chose this job over “great European offers.”

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Higuain nearing Chelsea move, City looking for Fernandinho cover

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Gonzalo Higuain has been linked with a move to Chelsea almost all winter, and all signs point to a move away from the San Siro any day now. The 31-year-old striker was left out of the AC Milan squad to take on Genoa on Monday, the most recent sign of his imminent departure.

In his pre-match press conference, Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso spoke about the likely move, saying angrily, “I spoke in my office with Higuain and it is right to leave him out. We are still waiting on the move and there’s nothing completed but I want to see people who are mentally ready and available and if I don’t get that, I’ll go into battle with those who are more prepared.”

Chelsea has had trouble finding a productive striker of late, with Alvaro Morata benched for poor performance. With Olivier Giroud injured and inconsistent, Maurizio Sarri has utilized Eden Hazard as a false nine, and the result has been just five goals over the last six matches across all competitions.


Manchester City is reportedly looking to find a player to back up defensive midfielder Fernandinho, and the name mentioned is Schalke’s Sebastian Rudy.

The 28-year-old German arrived at Schalke from Bayern Munich this past summer, but has logged just 644 league minutes. While Rudy likely wouldn’t find the starting lineup more often at the Etihad, Pep Guardiola is known for his effective player rotation at Man City, and the club could tempt him with a title race.

Fernandinho has been one of the world’s best defensive midfielders over the past few years, but with the Brazilian on the sideline for two matches earlier this season, Manchester City dropped both games and slipped behind Liverpool in the title race. Center-back John Stones was utilized in the defensive midfield role in Fernandinho’s absence, but Crystal Palace and Leicester City scored a combined five goals.

According to multiple reports in England, a short-term loan would be effective in giving Fernandinho cover for the rest of the season as City looks to catch up with Liverpool and hold of Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arenal.


Arsenal fans were put on alert with Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti in attendance at the Emirates for Arsenal’s win over Chelsea. The French defender is currently injured, and with Barcelona playing on Sunday, Umtiti was able to make his way to England and watch his countrymates Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette.

It would be highly unlikely for Umtiti to move this winter, as he is vitally important to the Barcelona squad and is out injured for another few weeks due to a long-term knee problem. It’s plausible Arsenal could make a play over the summer, but given how Barcelona’s defense has sagged in his absence, it’s unlikely the La Liga leaders would be willing to let him go. Umtiti’s contract with Barcelona runs through the summer of 2023, so he is under clear club control for the time being.


Rumblings in England have suggested that Tottenham defender and American international Cameron Carter-Vickers could leave Spurs this winter after the club has decided the 21-year-old will not break into the first team. According to a report by TeamTalk.com, Wigan Athletic could be in play for a permanent move for Carter-Vickers, who is currently on loan at Swansea City, but has struggled for playing time with the Championship club.

The American was also linked with Ipswich Town earlier this January, although that was mentioned as another loan. Either way, it sounds increasingly likely that Spurs could recall Carter-Vickers and look for a new club to deploy him at this winter.