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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.

Former Arsenal, Brazil midfielder Baptista announces retirement

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Julio Baptista’s time at Arsenal only lasted 12 months, but it was a memorable stint.

The Brazilian, who played the 2006-07 season for the Gunners, announced his retirement on Thursday at the age of 37. The former Brazil international only managed 10 goals with Arsenal, but they came in bunches.

Baptista memorably scored four goals against Liverpool in the League Cup quarterfinal, as Arsenal finished with a 6-3 win. Baptista even missed a penalty kick that game.

Baptista cemented his legacy later in the season with a brace in the FA Cup against rival Tottenham.

Baptista, clearly an immensely talented player, suffered from being a good, but not great player. He seemed to have no perfect position other than the No. 10, and most teams he played for had better players in that position. It forces him to play along the wings, deeper in midfield or as a striker during the prime of his career.

In the end, injuries beset his career, especially a short spell at Orlando City in MLS.

 

U-20 World Cup Rewind: Italy tops Mexico, host Poland falls on Day 1 (video)

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Italy opened the FIFA Under-20 World Cup with a bang, knocking off fellow Group B favorite Mexico, 2-1, in Gdynia, Poland.

It only took Italy three minutes to get on the board, as Davide Frattesi found a pocket of space in front of the El Tri backline and dribbled in on goal. The Sassuolo midfielder then decided to fire on goal from distance, hitting a rocket into the corner to give Italy a 1-0 lead.

Later in the first half Gianluca Scamacca also took a rip from outside the box, but his strike sailed just wide.

A defensive error on a corner kick gave Diego Lainez and Mexico life. In the 37th minute, AC Milan product Alessandro Plizzari committed a howler, coming out to punch away the curled corner kick. Plizzari missed the ball and it went right to the head of Roberto De La Rosa, who calmly made it 1-1.

El Tri however suffered a blow late in the match as Italy took back the lead. In the 67th minute, Luca Ranieri collected the ball on the edge of the six yard box and from a tight angle, he scored past Mexico goalkeeper Carlos Higuera.

For Mexico, it’s a rough way to start the World Cup, having to go against a perennial power in Italy and playing on European soil. Not all is lost for Mexico, but it has to rebound with a win in its next game against Japan.

Elsewhere, Colombia defeated host Poland, 2-0, Japan tied Ecuador 1-1, and Senegal beat Tahiti, 3-0.

Saudis, Bahrain, UAE join to bid for FIFA’s U-20 World Cup

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GENEVA (AP) Middle East neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are jointly bidding to host the Under-20 World Cup in 2021.

FIFA says the Gulf plan is among five to express interest in bidding, including Brazil.

Indonesia, Peru and a Myanmar-Thailand joint bid are the others.

FIFA announced the contenders Thursday, one day after dropping a proposal for Qatar to share hosting duties for the 2022 World Cup with regional neighbors.

The 2021 U20 contenders must submit a formal bid by Aug. 30. FIFA’s ruling Council will pick the winner, likely in October.

The 2019 edition kicks off Thursday in Poland.

Putin awards medal to FIFA president Infantino

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MOSCOW (AP) Vladimir Putin has given FIFA president Gianni Infantino a medal.

The Russian president awarded Infantino the Order of Friendship at the Kremlin on Thursday.

Infantino has often said last year’s World Cup in Russia, where the host nation surprisingly reached the quarterfinals, was the best of the 21 editions of the tournament.

Putin thanked the FIFA leader for “your glowing assessment of our efforts.”

Infantino says of Russia’s “bonds of friendship” with soccer “is not the end, it is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”

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