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La Liga: Real Madrid pulls within two of 2nd place Atletico

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While Barcelona sits atop the La Liga table with a comfortable six point cushion, the race below them continues to rage on. On Sunday, the waters were muddied a bit thanks to a 3-0 Real Betis win at Atletico Madrid, allowing their cross-town rivals to gain ground.

Real Madrid topped Alaves 1-0 at home, pulling them to within two points of Atletico in second place. All the way back in ninth in early November, Madrid has hit its stride and rocketed back up the table with a stretch of eight wins in their past 11 league matches.

Karim Benzema was the opening goalscorer on Sunday, as his 30th minute tap-in capped off a simple overlap between Sergio Reguilon and Alvaro Odriozola that somehow picked apart the Alaves right flank. Reguilon crossed it for Benzema streaking in at the back post and he poked in his ninth league goal of the season and third in the last two games.

The 31-year-old Frenchman has come under fire this season for his goal scoring form without Cristiano Ronaldo to draw defenders, but has responded with a stretch of five goals in his last seven games. Other popular Madrid players have received criticism as well, and while Gareth Bale has maintained his starting place, others like Marcelo and Isco have dropped to the bench. Young players like Regulion, Odriozola, and Vinicius Jr have come in and taken their spots in the lineup with improved play, helping Madrid right the ship.

18-year-old Vinicius Jr finished things off 10 minutes from time on the break as a cross from Marco Asensio passed Benzema but fell to Vinicius at the far post for a powerful low finish. Substitute Mariano added the icing on the cake with a 91st minute with a diving header, redirecting Odriozola’s cross into the top-right corner.

Meanwhile, Atletico was held by Betis in Alvaro Morata’s debut for the club, but they could only put one of their 13 shots on frame, and the wasteful afternoon was punished by Sergio Canales from the penalty spot just past the hour mark. Morata had the team’s only shot on target, coming in the 11th minute. From that point on, the visitors were wasteful, and when Filipe Luis handled the ball in the area, that allowed Canales to step up and bury his sixth goal of the season, and third in the last four games.

With Barcelona at the top on 50 points, the Atletico loss leaves them six points back in second on 44. Real Madrid’s win, meanwhile, moved them to within two of their rivals, on 42 points in third place.

Elsewhere, Espanyol came back from 2-0 down on the road at Villareal to secure a 2-2 draw. A Daniele Bonera own-goal in the 75th minute opened the door, and Roberto Rosales scored six minutes later to secure the draw. The result is a tragic one for Villareal, who is battling relegation and has not won since November 25, unable to turn five draws in that span into anything more meaningful. The point Sunday saw them up to 19 on the season, but it didn’t help them gain much ground on 18th placed Rayo Vallecano or 17th placed Leganes both on 23 points.

And finally, Eibar pummeled Girona 3-0 behind a brace from 34-year-old Brazilian striker Charles who has six goals in his last six league games.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).

De Ligt reportedly chooses Barcelona; Klopp set at CB

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Liverpool, Manchester United, and pretty much everyone but Barcelona looks set to miss out on Matthijs de Ligt.

De Ligt, 19, has paired with Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk while in the Netherlands national team set-up, but reportedly is opting to join Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

In the case of Liverpool, Sky Sports says that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp thinks he doesn’t need another center back.

Injuries hit Liverpool’s center backs this season outside of Van Dijk. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were rated highly and combined for just over 2500 minutes, while young Joe Gomez suffered a long-term injury midway through the season.

If all are healthy, Liverpool has decent depth. Yet even Gomez doesn’t have the upside to shake a stick at De Ligt if the 19-year-old was truly interested in coming to Anfield.

I mean, “Are you interested in this 19-year-old captain of a Champions League semifinalist? He’s interested in coming there” usually doesn’t yield a firm, “No.”

As for Barcelona, it will reinforce its back line a year after allowing 36 goals. That’s pretty decent, but the Blaugranas‘ third-highest total of the last decade.

Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.