Filipe Luis

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Struggling Atleti in unfamiliar territory under Simeone

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MADRID — This is uncharted territory for many Atletico Madrid fans.

Few other times in recent years have they seen their team struggle so much under Diego Simeone.

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Few other times have they seen their coach fail so often while trying to put the team back on track.

Atletico hit a new low under Simeone on Thursday when it was eliminated by third-division club Cultural Leonesa in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey. The 2-1 loss in extra time was the team’s worst result in the cup competition since losing to third-tier club Albacete at the same stage in 2011-12.

Two days after that loss in 2011, Atletico hired the then-mostly unknown Simeone to replace Gregorio Manzano, a move that kick-started one of the club’s most successful eras and led to a Spanish league title, two Europa League trophies and two Champions League final appearances.

Atletico did go through difficult moments under Simeone, including when the team failed to advance past the group stage of the Champions League a couple of seasons ago.

“There were always complicated moments in past seasons, maybe after we didn’t make it in the Champions League, or when we lost in the Champions League finals,” Simeone said. “After being at the club for so long, things like this can happen, although they shouldn’t happen.”

There is a greater sense of urgency about the team’s struggles this time.

In addition to Wednesday’s embarrassing Copa del Rey elimination, Atletico lost the Spanish Super Cup final to Real Madrid on Jan. 12, and already is eight points off the Spanish league lead after 20 matches.

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Before, there used to be a notion that Simeone would quickly turn things around and put the team back on track, but this time there aren’t many signs things will improve again soon.

Atletico has yet to impress since undergoing its biggest squad revamp under Simeone at the end of last season, when it lost Antoine Griezmann and other veteran players such as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin. Young Portugal forward Joao Felix, who arrived to replace Griezmann after a transfer from Benfica worth more than 120 million euros ($133 million), has yet to meet expectations.

More concerning, Atletico is not being nearly as effective as it used to be, when it always seemed to find a way to win matches despite not playing well.

The team remains solid defensively — it has the second-best defense in the Spanish league with 14 goals conceded — but it hasn’t been able to do much in attack recently.

“Everything is harder when you can’t score,” Simeone said.

Only seven teams have scored fewer goals than Atletico’s 22 in the 20-team standings.

Diego Costa has been mostly out injured, and Victor “Vitolo” Machin and Alvaro Morata haven’t done much in attack. Morata is the team’s leading scorer with 10 goals in all competitions, and no one else has more than five.

“We have to be humble enough to be self-critical,” Simeone said. “We need to keep working to try to be ready for the challenges that we have ahead of us. We have a very good squad and I’m sure that the results that we want will start arriving soon.”

Atletico biggest chance to rebound will come next month against European champion Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League. The first leg will be on Feb. 18 in Spain.

Club World Cup semifinal preview: Liverpool aims for 1st world title

Jurgen Klopp
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Liverpool’s quest to become the second Premier League club to win the Club World Cup begins Wednesday in Qatar against Liga MX side Monterrey.

The Reds hope to join 2008 winners Manchester United as the lone English winners of the 19-year-old tournament. Liverpool (2005) and Chelsea (2012) have also lost CWC finals.

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The tournament crown has belonged in European hands since Corinthians surprised Chelsea in 2012.

The Reds are nearly -1000 favorites to beat Monterrey and the world will expect a tournament crown for the Premier League side, to be sure.

They’ve added Sepp van den Berg, Ki-Jana Hoever, and Harvey Elliott to the team following injuries to Dejan Lovren and Rhian Brewster.

Liverpool play Monterrey at 12:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, 24 hours after fellow favorites Flamengo meet up with Saudi side Al-Hilal.

Here’s a quick roundup of the other three competitors.

Monterrey

The most immediate threat to Jurgen Klopp‘s goals comes in the form of CONCACAF Champions League-winning Rayados. Leonel Vangioni scored a marvelous goal to lead the Liga MX side past Al-Sadd in the quarterfinal. Former Spurs flop Vincent Janssen is in the club, as are familiar faces Miguel Layun (Watford) and Rogelio Funes Mori (River Plate).

Al-Hilal

The Saudi club got here by beating Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds in the Asian Champions League, with Sebastian Giovinco and Bafetimbi Gomis leading the way. Gomis scored the lone goal of a quarterfinal defeat of Esperance Tunis, set up by ex-Watford man Andre Carrillo.

Flamengo

The Rio-based South American champions are led by Gabriel Barbosa, who is on loan from Inter Milan and scoring at will. Longtime Schalke and Bayern Munich man Rafinha is on the squad, as is former Chelsea man Filipe Luis. Diego Alves (Valencia) is the man between the posts.

Vinicius Junior called up for Brazil for first time

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Vinicius Junior has been called up to the Brazilian national team for the first time for friendly matches against Panama and the Czech Republic.

The 18-year-old striker has become a key player for Real Madrid this season.

[ MORE: PL relegation picture in focus ]

Brazil coach Tite also called up midfielder Felipe Anderson and striker Richarlison.

Brazil is preparing to host the Copa America in June.

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Alisson (Liverpool), Ederson (Manchester City), Weverton (Palmeiras)

Ddefenders: Alex Sandro (Juventus), Danilo (Manchester City), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), Eder Militao (Porto), Dani Alves (Paris Saint-Germain), Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), Miranda (Inter Milan)

Midfielders: Allan (Napoli), Arthur (Barcelona), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fabinho (Liverpool), Felipe Anderson (West Ham), Lucas Paqueta (AC Milan)

Forwards: Everton (Gremio), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Richarlison (Everton), Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)

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.

Atleti rebound from Dortmund debacle to take La Liga lead

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Atletico Madrid bounced back from its worst defeat under coach Diego Simeone by beating Real Sociedad 2-0 to take the lead of the Spanish league on Saturday.

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Atletico was one point ahead of Barcelona and Espanyol. Barcelona can reclaim the lead on Sunday when it hosts Real Madrid in the season’s first clasico.

Atletico produced the convincing home victory over Sociedad three days after it lost at Borussia Dortmund 4-0 in the Champions League, its biggest loss in 390 matches since Simeone took charge in 2011.

Atletico hemmed Sociedad in its own area for most of the first half until Diego Godin broke through just before halftime when he swept in a clearance of a pass by Angel Correa.

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Fellow defender Filipe Luis added a second goal as a substitute in the 61st when he cut inside from the left flank and fired into the far corner of the net.

Simeone made four changes to his starting 11 from the collapse at Dortmund, starting Correa, Rodrigo Hernandez, Stefan Savic and Santiago Arias instead of Filipe Luis, Thomas Lemar, Thomas Partey and Juanfran Torres.

“I was convinced that my players would respond in the best way possible and once again they showed the inner strength of this team,” Simeone said.