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Boosted by stadium blessing, Atletico takes on Real Madrid

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid’s president and club officials looked on as its new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium was blessed in a private pitch-side ceremony this week.

Cardinal Carlos Osoro led the blessing which may have come at the right time for Atletico ahead of this weekend’s city derby against Real Madrid – with the team needing all the help it can get to overcome its struggles at the new 68,000-capacity home.

Diego Simeone’s team has only two wins in six games since the Metropolitano was inaugurated this season, losing once and drawing three straight going into Saturday’s match.

“We want to win the first ever derby at the Wanda Metropolitano,” Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann said in an interview with La Liga’s website. “It’s a very important match for the fans, for the club. It’s a match every player wants to be a part of.”

The inaugural derby at the new stadium could be decisive for the teams’ title hopes this season, as Barcelona has already opened a significant advantage at the top of the league standings.

The loser this weekend may find itself facing an 11-point deficit against the thriving Catalan club.

Barcelona plays at mid-table Leganes on Saturday. Second-place Valencia, four points behind Barcelona and four points in front of both Madrid clubs, plays at Espanyol on Sunday to try to extend its seven-game winning streak in the league.

Atletico remains unbeaten in La Liga but has won only two of its last nine matches in all competitions.

“It’s been difficult to score goals and to win matches,” Griezmann said. “We are solid on defense, we just need to turn things around on offense. We have to keep working hard to try to improve.”

Real Madrid is coming off a home victory over Las Palmas in the league, a result that helped restore order after two consecutive losses sparked a wave of criticism against Zinedine Zidane’s team.

“Focused,” was Cristiano Ronaldo’s message on Instagram this week along with a photo of him training for Saturday’s match.

Atletico got off to a good start after moving from its beloved Vicente Calderon Stadium to the modern Metropolitano on the outskirts of Madrid. It made its debut in the new venue with a 1-0 win against Malaga, and followed it with a 2-0 victory against Sevilla.

But things started going wrong when Atletico made its European debut at the stadium in a Champions League match against Chelsea. It scored first but ended losing 2-1 after conceding in the last minute of injury time.

In its next league game, Atletico was ahead of Barcelona until late in the match, but conceded an equalizer by Luis Suarez and ended with a disappointing 1-1 draw. It also was held by Villarreal to a 1-1 draw, then endured its worst setback yet – a 1-1 draw against 10-man Qarabag in a result that practically ended its hopes of advancing from the group stage of the Champions League.

And with its title chances hanging by a thread in Europe, only a home victory on Saturday may keep Atletico in contention for a significant trophy this season.

The team’s faithful haven’t given up.

“I’m sure that we will eventually have the same success at the new stadium that we used to have at the Calderon,” Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak said. “We will see how it goes this weekend, but hopefully there will be a happy ending for us.”

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Barcelona: Mascherano out for a month with hamstring injury

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano will be sidelined for about a month because of a hamstring injury.

Mascherano hurt his right leg while playing in Argentina’s 4-2 loss to Nigeria in a friendly in Russia on Tuesday.

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Tests conducted on Wednesday in Barcelona showed the extent of the injury.

The 33-year-old Argentine played the entire game against Nigeria.

Barcelona’s next game is Saturday at Leganes in the Spanish league.

The Catalan club leads La Liga with 31 points from 11 matches, four points more than second-place Valencia.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Witness says official was bribed for World Cup vote

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NEW YORK (AP) A powerful soccer official from Argentina demanded bribes to vote for Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022, at one point telling Qatari officials to turn over $80 million, a witness at a U.S. trial testified.

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Former Argentine marketing executive Alejandro Burzaco told the jury on Tuesday that the official, Julio Grondona, claimed in several conversations that he was owed millions of dollars for his 2010 vote as a member of FIFA’s executive committee that helped Qatar land the soccer’s most prestigious tournament.

The account in federal court in Brooklyn appeared to back up persistent suspicions that the Qatar vote was rigged and that the influence of Grondona, a senior vice president at FIFA and head of the Argentinian football association until his death in 2014, was for sale.

Burzaco, whose testimony was to continue Wednesday, described an angry behind-the-scenes confrontation between Grondona and Qatari soccer officials at a 2011 meeting of FIFA, soccer’s governing body. The soccer official was upset over reports accusing him of corruption, he said.

Grondona started “insulting them and complaining,” Burzaco testified. “And basically, Grondona told them, you either pay me $80 million . or you issue me a letter by print or by top authorities saying that you never pay me a bribe.”

Burzaco is testifying under a plea agreement against three former South American soccer officials accused of taking bribes in a sprawling corruption investigation of FIFA. Jose Maria Marin, Manuel Burga and Juan Angel Napout have pleaded not guilty to charges they took part in a 24-year scheme involving at least $150 million in bribes that secured broadcasting and hosting rights for soccer tournaments around the globe.

More than 40 other officials and business executives been charged. Many, including Burzaco, have pleaded guilty in hopes of receiving reduced sentences.

Lazio summoned to hearing over Anne Frank stickers

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ROME (AP) The Italian football federation has ordered Lazio to attend a disciplinary hearing after shocking displays of anti-Semitism by the Serie A club’s supporters last month.

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After their team’s victory over Cagliari on Oct. 22, Lazio fans littered the Stadio Olimpico in Rome with images of Anne Frank – the young diarist who died in the Holocaust – wearing a jersey of city rival Roma.

The FIGC announced the hearing on Tuesday. It says there was a “clear anti-Semitic intent” and that it “constituted discriminatory behavior.”

There was worldwide outrage after the incident and a criminal investigation is underway.

A passage from Frank’s diary was read out at all soccer matches in Italy the following week, while there was also a minute of silence before they kicked off to promote Holocaust remembrance.

World Cup spy: Honduras accuses Aussies of clumsy espionage

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SYDNEY (AP) Jorge Luis Pinto has accused Australia of a clumsy espionage attempt after a drone hovered over his Honduras squad’s practice session ahead of the return leg of their World Cup playoff.

The first leg last Friday ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving a spot at next year’s World Cup at stake Wednesday at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

The Australian squad flew directly home from Honduras on a charter flight brimming with rehabilitation equipment for the players and landed on Sunday, a day ahead of Pinto’s squad.

The Hondurans were upset when officials saw a drone flying over their practice session late Monday, and posted a video of the drone on the team’s Twitter account with the message: “Selection of Honduras upset by Australian espionage with a Drone.”

Pinto didn’t back away from the claims at his match-eve news conference, saying he didn’t accept the explanation from stadium staff that it was an accidental case of a father and his child playing with the drone in a nearby park.

“Let’s not be innocent. It’s espionage in football,” Pinto said. “Just like VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has made it into football, drones have made their way into espionage.

“It just takes some of the merit away from the fair play and the sporting event that will be held tomorrow.”

Pinto said it was “embarrassing for such an advanced country” and added that the Socceroos had checked “every bathroom, every box at the stadiums where they trained” in San Pedro Sula to ensure there was no spying on their own sessions.

Football Federation Australia said it had nothing to do with the drone.

Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said he wasn’t getting distracted by the claims, and was focused only on getting the Socceroos to a fourth consecutive World Cup.

“There was a fair bit of drama around the first game, but we stayed well out of it,” Postecoglou said. “Ultimately, it’s all pretty irrelevant when the game kicks off tomorrow night. It’s all about those 90 minutes and anything said beforehand is meaningless.”

It has been a long campaign for both squads. Australia went through the last round of Asian qualifying with just one loss from 10 games, yet still missed out on one of the four direct entries to Russia on goals difference.

A lack of finish in front of the goals was evident again in the Asian playoff against Syria, which the Australians won courtesy of Tim Cahill’s two goals in Sydney to reach the intercontinental playoff.

Honduras finished fourth in qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean, securing a spot in the playoff at the expense of the U.S.

Australia failed to convert two clear chances to score in San Pedro Sula last Friday, but Postecoglou said he was content to come back to Australia on level terms. Cahill, who didn’t play in the first game because of an ankle injury, is fit and ready for selection, and Mark Milligan and Matt Leckie are available again after being suspended for the series opener.

Postecoglou has foreshadowed changes for the return match and so has Pinto, saying there could be up to three changes for Honduras with veteran skipper Maynor Figueroa and pacy winger Alberth Elis coming back.

Pinto said Figueroa would add some field presence and composure to his team, and Elis could create space out wide.

The Honduras coach didn’t elaborate too much further on what tactics he’d use, but had a tongue-in-cheek poke at Postecoglou on the theme of surveillance.

“Without a doubt we’ll be employing long balls tomorrow,” he said. “So if the head coach of Australia is watching this press conference he has some insight into the game!”

The Sydney news conference was broadcast on TV in Honduras, and Pinto was asked if he had a message for the team’s fans.

“Just as we faced situations against Mexico and El Salvador, which were tough, we always made it through,” he said. “Tomorrow is not going to be the exception. We’ll make it through.”