Eden Hazard

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Euro qualifying: Hazard stars for Belgium, Wales grabs big win

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The early slate of Euro 2020 qualifiers on Saturday saw a few teams assure themselves of a playoff position as the qualifying cycle nears a close.

Wales was assured of at least a playoff spot after Sweden topped Romania yesterday, but they continued a push towards automatic qualification by topping Azerbaijan 2-0. Wigan striker Kieffer Moore opened the scoring 10 minutes in as Harry Wilson nearly bagged a stunning strike from outside the box, but his curler struck the underside of the bar, then the inside of the post, and came out. Moore was there to head home the rebound and Wales had the lead. They doubled that lead before halftime as Bournemouth’s Wilson would get his goal, and Wales saw out the rest of the match to move one point back of Hungary in an automatic qualifying position.

Belgium has already qualified for the finals, but Roberto Martinez’s side continued its good form with a romping 4-1 win over Russia behind a brace from Eden Hazard. Romelu Lukaku also scored in the match, while Thorgan Hazard bagged a goal as well. The win assured Belgium of the top spot in Group I, moving six points ahead of their opponents.

Scotland picked up a gutty road win at Cyprus 2-1 behind John McGinn‘s 53rd minute winner, jumping into third place in Group I, although they have already secured a playoff position thanks to their Nations League results. Ryan Christie and Georgios Efrem had cancelled each other out before Aston Villa’s McGinn poked home Greg Taylor’s cross from near the penalty area to put the visitors ahead for good in Nicosia.

Slovenia needs a miraculous comeback to qualify for the finals, but they stayed alive and in contention with a 1-0 win at Latvia behind an Igors Tarasovs own-goal in the 53rd minute. The victory pushed Slovenia to 14 points, two back of second-placed Austria in Group G and five behind Poland, but the top two teams in the group still have yet to play today and could both secure qualification wins.

Elsewhere, in a result with little effect on the qualification process, Kazakhstan topped San Marino 3-1 in a matchup of two eliminated teams.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona fall to Levante; Real Madrid held to draw

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Barcelona’s collapse in Levante and Real Madrid draw at home highlight La Liga’s Saturday action.

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Levante 3-1 Barcelona

In seven minutes, Barcelona conceded three goals, all of which came in the second half and handed the league leaders a 3-1 loss against Levante.

The collapse was so palpable that manager Ernesto Valverde couldn’t avoid the fire. The 55-year-old was asked a handful of questions regarding his future with the club. As expected, he didn’t hesitate to defend his job security, stating that Saturday’s loss was like any other.

It wasn’t, though.

Very rare are the times that Barcelona blackouts for consecutive minutes in a game, which was certainly the case on Saturday.

Lionel Messi converted from 12 yards out in the 38th minute, putting the better team ahead minutes before the first half culminated. But just shortly after both sides settled for the final 45 minutes, Levante pounced on a halfhearted Barcelona.

The first, a composed, right-foot finish from Jose Campañi, opened the floodgates. Two minutes later, an old foe, ex-Real Madrid forward Borja Mayoral, put the home side ahead. Five minutes after the second fell, when an opportunistic Nemanja Radoja’s left-footed volley took a deflection from Sergio Busquets and into the back of the net.

With draws from Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, Barcelona remain atop of the league. But the pressure is on, and being tied with Real Madrid with 22 points after 11 games doesn’t help, that’s for sure.

The defending champions look to regain some confidence as they host Slavia Praha in Champions League play midweek, while Levante hope to carry their momentum to the Basque Country as they take on Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid 0-0 Real Betis

With the opportunity to surpass league leaders Barcelona, Real Madrid were held to a draw by Real Betis after several close calls (and some controversy).

A spectacular goal from Eden Hazard was called back by VAR. When Los Blancos turned to the officials for a suspicious handball from Zouhair Feddal, the appeal felt short.

Sergio Ramos, who ruled Saturday’s draw as “bittersweet,” had a clear shot on target, only for it to be blocked by Betis’ Joel Robles. More chances appeared for Zinedine Zidane, specifically Ferland Mendy in the dying minutes of the game. The Frenchman’s shot went just wide of Betis’ goal, however.

Tied with Barcelona and only a point ahead of archival Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid host Turkish giants Galatasaray midweek in Champions League competition. Betis, who are slowly but surely building back from a tough start, host Sevilla in the Seville derby.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Sevilla 1-1 Atletico Madrid

Espanyol 1-2 Valencia

Early Euro qualifiers: Belgium, Netherlands, Russia all win

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In the early slate of Sunday’s Euro 2020 qualifiers, there were little surprises as Belgium, Russia, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Scotland all found the winner’s column.

Liverpool midfielder Giorginio Wijnaldum bagged a first-half brace, including an absolute rocket, as the Netherlands held on for a 2-1 win over Belarus. BATE Borisov midfielder Stanislav Dragun grabbed one back for Belarus soon after halftime, but the visitors held on in Minsk.

[ WATCH: Wijnaldum scores ripper for Netherlands ]

Virgil Van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt partnered in defense yet again, as they have for 17 of the last 19 Netherlands games, conceding just 17 goals in those 17 matches. Thanks in part to that stellar partnership, Jasper Cillessen had little to do, with Dragun’s headed goal the only shot on target for Belarus in the match, while the Netherlands put seven of their 21 shots on frame.

Michy Batshuayi and Thomas Meunier both found the back of the net as Belgium topped Kazakhstan 2-0 in Astana to remain perfect in qualifying action and keep pace with Russia in Group I. Batshuayi was filling in for an injured Romelu Lukaku, and he latched onto a low back-post cross from Dennis Praet for the opener 21 minutes in. Meunier’s 53rd minute poke came off an absolutely stunning long delivery from Eden Hazard to the far post placed perfectly over the head of the defender. Belgium held 66% possession throughout the match, and while they were only able to put three shots on target, they scored on two of them and held the hosts to just one. Belgium has now scored 30 goals in Euro qualification while conceding just one.

Russia also continued to surge ahead in Group I play one game back of Belgium with a 5-0 demolition of Cyprus in Nicosia. Denis Cheryshev struck nine minutes in to put Russia ahead as he pilfered the ball off the Cyprus back line. The hosts lost Standard Liege defender Konstantinos Laifis to a straight red card, and the rest was elementary. Magomed Ozdoev, Artem Dzyuba, and Aleksandr Golovin all found the back of the net before Cheryshev finished it off with his second of the game in stoppage time. Russia and Belgium have both qualified for the finals, with Russia sitting in second three points behind the perfect group leaders.

Hungary scored 10 minutes in and hung on for a 1-0 victory at home over Azerbaijan. 30-year-old Mihaly Korhut struck a long-distance ripper from well outside the box that appeared to catch goalkeeper Emil Balayev off guard, and the Hungary defense did the rest. RB Leipzig captain Willi Orban and Sporting Kansas City defender Botond Barath held Azerbaijan to just four total shots, including two on target. Meanwhile, despite splitting the possession nearly halfway, Hungary ripped off 23 shots, putting six on target.

Scotland hammered San Marino at home 6-0 behind a first-half hat-trick from Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn. In the pouring rain in Glasgow, McGinn opened the scoring 12 minutes in for his second international goal on a simple cutback and shot from Ryan Christie which clipped McGinn on its way inside the far post. He hit for a second just before the half-hour mark as he poked home a cross by Scott McTominay that was saved into no-man’s land by a diving San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Junior Simoncini. The third featured the highest degree of difficulty as a set-piece delivery into the box was headed by Stuart Findlay towards the far post and McGinn ripped it home on the doorstep under pressure. Lawrence Shankland, Findlay, and Stuart Armstrong finished off the scoreline in the second half, although Scotland has still long been eliminated from qualification in the top-heavy Group I.

La Liga roundup: Real Madrid remain atop of La Liga (video)

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Real Madrid’s near-perfect victory over Granada highlights La Liga’s Saturday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Madrid 4-2 Granada

Real Madrid’s 4-2 victory over a on-fire Granada had it all: a Karim Benzema goal, Eden Hazard‘s first La Liga goal, a Luka Modric rocket goal, a laudable response from the visitor’s, and a game-winning tap-in from James Rodriguez.

Surely, the result and now a clear lead in the league’s table is what Zinedine Zidane needs to continue carrying his campaign forward in the right direction. But that’s not only what the Frenchmen is getting.

As Saturday’s result showed, Real Madrid’s star-studded lineup, following an alarming start, is back on its two feet. Luka Modric – although it’s unlikely he’ll lift it again – is regaining the level that earned him the Ballon d’Or in 2018. Gareth Bale, who had his fair share of severe ups and downs with Zidane over the summer amid talks of a move to China, has regained his from – visible in his assist to Benzema two minutes into Saturday’s game.

Hazard, too, is showing signs of the assimilation process coming to an end. The Belgium scored his first La Liga goal, and offered a well-rounded performance to compliment such accomplishment. Off the bench, James continues to make the case that he won’t stop fighting for a starting spot anytime soon.

All in all, Real Madrid’s victory against a second-place Granda, who remain as the biggest surprise of the season, goes to show that the giant is awake and hungry.

Following international break, Zidane and company will travel to Mallorca, while Granada aims to get back into winning ways against Osasuna.

Valencia 2-1 Alaves 

Just days removed from being routed in at home in Champions League play, Valencia responded in valiant fashion.

 

Back at La Mestalla, Albert Celades and company put together their second consecutive win against a tough Alaves side.

Following an efficient counter-attack, Maxi Gomez broke deadlock with a calmly taken right-footed strike inside Alaves’ box 27 minutes in.

Nothing would separate either side for nearly 60 minutes, but then a foul on Daniel Parejo occurred inside the box. A penalty was award in favor of the home side. Of course, the captain capitalized from the spot, recording his fourth of the season.

Late in stoppage time, Alaves responded with one of their own. Former Arsenal man Lucas Perez pounced on a second chance  ball inside the box, but it was far from being enough to earn the visitors any points.

Unbeaten in their last four, Valencia move to the eighth spot ahead of their match against Atletico Madrid following international break. Alavaes, on the other hand, host Celta Vigo.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Osasuna 2-1 Villareal

Leganes 1-2 Levante

Zidane: ‘We have to remain calm’ about under-performing Hazard

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Eden Hazard‘s long journey to becoming a Real Madrid star is… still incomplete.

The longtime Chelsea playmaker, 28, is yet to find a goal or an assist while wearing the shirt of his new club, a run of 267 minutes without production.

[ MORE: Man Utd 1-1 Arsenal ]

It’s reasonable to think that will change on Tuesday with a UEFA Champions League visit from Club Brugge, as Real looks to shake the bad vibes from its tournament-opening 3-0 loss at injury-hit Paris Saint-Germain.

The advanced stats say Hazard has been below average not just to his standards, but period. Zinedine Zidane claims he is not worried about the Belgian.

From AS.com:

“I’m not going to give him any advice, or tell him how he should be. He’s a very important player for us and we want more from him but we have to remain calm. I’m not worried. He’ll succeed here because he’s a very good player and that isn’t going to change. If he shows it tomorrow then that’ll be great.”

For his part, Hazard says the slow start hasn’t been easy to handle, but his best form is coming.

“When I start to score and get some good performances, everything will be easier. I’m missing a goal or assist to start to turn things around,” he added.

It’s worth noting that Hazard’s Chelsea teams were mercurial, and Zidane is getting first-place results without the would-be Galactico contributing much. It could be a decent sign for Real, because the Premier League has seen the heights of Hazard at his best.