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Modric says others needed to step up when Ronaldo left

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MADRID (AP) With Real Madrid faltering in attack, Luka Modric is feeling the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Modric, who replaced Ronaldo as the winner of the world’s best player award, said Monday that things would be different for Real Madrid if the Portugal forward hadn’t left to join Juventus last year.

“Every team would miss a player like Cristiano. It’s almost impossible to find someone to replace him. Of course we miss him,” Modric said a day before Madrid hosts Ajax in the second leg of the round of 16 in the Champions League.

[READ: UCL Last 16 Score Predictions]

Madrid won the first leg 2-1 three weeks ago in the Netherlands.

Madrid’s struggling attack was blamed for the team’s consecutive home losses to Barcelona last week, results that eliminated the club from the Copa del Rey and practically ended its hopes of winning the Spanish league title.

“What the club tried to do after Ronaldo left was to have other players take over his role in the attack, sharing the responsibility. But that is not something easy to do,” said Modric, the Croatia midfielder who played with Ronaldo for six seasons.

“Maybe some of the players needed to step up and, maybe not score 50 goals, but at least those goals that we haven’t been able to score. Maybe we needed two or three players who could score 15 or 20 or 10 goals each. But we don’t have that. I think that’s our biggest problem this season.”

Real Madrid was held scoreless in the losses to Barcelona despite creating many significant opportunities at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. The team’s forwards came close to scoring several times but were not able to capitalize on their chances.

“When that happens against a quality opponent, you will get punished,” Modric said.

This is Madrid’s first season in nearly a decade without Ronaldo, who led the team to four Champions League titles, including the last three in a row. The club has not made any major signings since he left, sticking to the players it already had.

“Cristiano is not here anymore and we can’t keep complaining about it for the next 10 years,” Modric said. “The club has faith in players like Gareth (Bale), (Marco) Asensio and Karim (Benzema). It added Mariano (Diaz) to the squad, and Vinicius Junior is showing that he has potential. But sometimes things don’t go as expected.”

Bale and Benzema performed well at the beginning of the season, scoring several goals and keeping the team competitive, but both have gone through tough spells since then.

Bale lost his starting spot to Vinicius Junior, a young Brazilian who has played well but still has room for improvement in front of the goal. He wasted several clear chances in the Copa del Rey match against Barcelona.

“We’ve already talked a lot about Ronaldo,” Real Madrid coach Santiago Solari said. “He is part of this club’s history, and what he has achieved can be seen throughout the team’s trophy case. We are trying to do the best we can.”

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…

[ MORE: USWNT wins final match before World Cup (video) ]

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…

[ MORE: Chelsea, Real Madrid remain $38 million apart on Eden Hazard deal ]

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)