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Madrid enduring its worst struggles in decades

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MADRID (AP) The first season without Cristiano Ronaldo is proving to be a difficult one for Real Madrid.

The Spanish powerhouse hasn’t been this bad in more than two decades.

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Not since 1996 had Madrid lost 10 matches at this point of the season. That team, led by Raul Gonzalez, lost 12 times by the end of January. Madrid’s team coached by Guus Hiddink three years later also struggled, losing 10 of its first 32 matches in all competitions, exactly like this season.

But all had gone mostly well for Madrid since then, especially after Ronaldo arrived in 2009 and led the club to a trove of trophies.

“The last few years have been some of the best in the history of Real Madrid,” defender Nacho Fernandez says. “It’s going to be difficult to match or surpass that.”

Madrid’s latest loss was at Leganes in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. It still advanced to the quarterfinals after having won the first leg 3-0, but the defeat again exposed some of the team’s problems since Ronaldo departed to join Juventus:

COACHING WOES

Zinedine Zidane left just before Ronaldo and his absence has been felt just as badly.

Madrid replaced the France great with Julen Lopetegui, but the former Spain coach lasted only about three months before he was sacked.

Former player Santiago Solari arrived as an interim coach and was given the full-time job after a good start, but confidence in him has quickly eroded as the team continues to be inconsistent.

He has struggled to manage some of his players, including Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, who could be on his way out because of his lack of playing minutes. He was substituted in the second half against Leganes on Wednesday.

Calls for another coaching change have been getting louder, adding to the team’s instability on the field.

BETTING ON YOUTH

Madrid did not make any blockbuster signing to try to replace Ronaldo, betting instead on youngsters such as Vinicius Junior, who is only 18.

The Brazilian has shown signs he could be a star, but still lacks the experience to lead the squad.

Mariano Diaz was given the No. 7 jersey when Ronaldo left, but his season has been marred by injuries and he hasn’t been able to contribute much so far.

SLUGGISH VETERANS

Madrid hoped veterans Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema could take over the leadership role that Ronaldo used to carry, but that never happened even though their numbers improved significantly after the Portuguese star left.

They each have scored more goals, but haven’t been consistent enough to also notch victories.

DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES

The club has conceded more than 30 goals and has one of the worst defenses among the teams in the top half of the Spanish league standings.

It lost 3-0 to Sevilla, Eibar, and CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, and was demoralized by Barcelona 5-1 in the league at Camp Nou Stadium.

“We know that we have to get better,” midfielder Casemiro says.

INJURIES

It hasn’t helped coach Solari that he lost Bale, Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Diaz to lengthy injuries. Benzema is the latest concern for Solari because of a broken hand.

“It’s been an atypical season with all the injuries,” Fernandez says. “We haven’t been playing our best soccer, but there is a lot of season left.”

Madrid’s next match is on Saturday at home against Sevilla in the Spanish league. Madrid is fourth in the standings, 10 points behind leader Barcelona after 19 matches.

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Would Martins swap help Atleti land Chelsea’s Morata?

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Atletico Madrid hopes to offload two under performers in the January transfer window, with at least one of them serving as a make good in a loan deal for Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata.

Atleti is without former Chelsea striker Diego Costa, and Diego Simeone sees something he likes in the misfiring Morata.

[ MORE: Zimmerman spurns Europe for LAFC ]

But the Atleti boss would need to come up with something additional for Morata aside from a $4 million loan fee, according to several reports.

Would the Blues accept either Nikola Kalinic or Gelson Martins in order to rid themselves of their Spanish striker?

Martins fits the Chelsea profile more, a 23-year-old attack-minded midfielder and winger, as Kalinic at 31 is a season-and-a-half removed from his last double-digit goal campaign.

Martins had 10 goals and nine assists for Sporting Lisbon last season.

Report: Atletico Madrid in talks to sign Morata

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Alvaro Morata’s tough time at Chelsea could be over very soon.

Sky Sports are reporting that Morata, 26, could be heading back to his native Spain on loan in January with Atletico Madrid eager to snap up the Spanish international striker.

Per the report, Atletico are in talks with Chelsea to complete the signing as Morata will return to the club where he began his career as a youth team player. Chelsea want a $12 million loan fee for the rest of the see with an obligation to buy Morata in the summer, as the player also earns $12 million per year at Chelsea.

It is believed he is willing to take a pay cut to return to Spain.

Following his $90 million club-record move from Real Madrid to Chelsea in the summer of 2017, Morata has failed to find consistent form and just hasn’t settled into life in the Premier League.

Morata has scored 16 goals in 47 PL appearances for Chelsea, but just five of them have come this season as he’s warmed the bench in recent months and has looked increasingly unhappy.

With Morata and Olivier Giroud sitting on the bench in recent weeks in favor of playing Eden Hazard as a false nine, Maurizio Sarri has made his feelings on the duo crystal clear.

Chelsea continued to be linked with moves for Callum Wilson, Gonzalo Higuain and other strikers in January, as they look to beef up their attack for the pivotal final few months of the campaign as their place in the top four remains in jeopardy.

As for Morata, he hasn’t been short of suitors despite his patchy form at Stamford Bridge as Sevilla, Barcelona and Atletico have been keen to sign him.

Heading to Atletico is a smart move for everyone concerned, as he will aid their La Liga title push in the second half of the season and he can also play in the UEFA Champions League as he hasn’t played in that competition for Chelsea this season.

With Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann to split minutes with, it will be tough, but  it seems like Morata fancies a return home after 18 months in England. Plus, former Chelsea striker Costa has scored just once in 11 league appearances for Atleti this season as he’s struggled with injuries.

This move works out well for everyone.

Griezmann standing in way of Barcelona’s title march

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Antoine Griezmann is almost single-handedly keeping Atletico Madrid in the Spanish league title race.

With the league at its halfway point, Griezmann is challenging Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for the status of most valuable player for their clubs.

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While Messi is beyond doubt the top player in Spain – and more – Atletico has stayed in second place behind Barcelona almost exclusively thanks to the goals of Griezmann.

The France forward has done more than any other of his teammates, especially in recent weeks, to keep Atletico five points behind Barcelona. And with Sevilla and Real Madrid already 10 points adrift, Griezmann’s Atletico looks like the only serious challenger standing in the way of Barcelona’s title defense.

Griezmann is on a five-game scoring streak and he has scored Atletico’s last six goals – five in the league and one in the Copa del Rey. He has found the net nine times and made six direct passes for goals in the league this season.

Messi leads the league with 17 goals scored, but he also has Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele combining to add another 21 goals between them.

In contrast, nobody else at Atletico has scored more than two goals in the league. Indeed, the second key player at Atletico is goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who anchored a defense that has allowed a league-low 13 goals.

Griezmann secured another win for Diego Simeone’s side on Sunday when he confidently stepped up to the spot and blasted a penalty kick to secure a 1-0 victory over Levante.

There were inspired runs by Victor “Vitolo” Machin and a couple of attempts by Angel Correa and Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion, but Atletico’s attack mainly depended on the quickness, speed and scoring touch of Griezmann.

Griezmann, however, said he was not satisfied with Atletico’s attack.

“We need to have more poise when we arrive to the opponent’s area, that’s what our coach says,” Griezmann said. “Maybe we have to shoot when we pass, and vice versa. It’s not easy. At the end, a 1-0 win is worth the same as 8-0, so we are happy.”

Griezmann helped France to the World Cup title last summer – a feat that has eluded Messi’s Argentina – shortly after guiding Atletico to the Europa League title.

He also turned down an offer to join Messi at Barcelona, opting to remain at the club where he is the undisputed star.

Now he is proving to be Atletico’s best reason to dream about winning another Spanish league title, or even an elusive Champions League crown.

“We all dig down deep and do our part when things get tough,” Griezmann said. “Without my teammates, I couldn’t do anything.”

WILLIAMS’ BRACE

Athletic Bilbao’s Inaki Williams has everything a team could want in a forward – speed, power and a good work ethic.

Everything, except for the ability to score lots of goals.

The 24-year-old Williams finally broke a two-year scoring drought at Bilbao’s San Mames Stadium to lead it to a much-needed 2-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday.

Williams netted both goals, and they were almost worth such a long wait for fans.

Williams got his first goal when he cut back from the left side and blasted a strike into the far corner of the net.

He topped that in the 84th with an eye-catching, 50-meter solo run that started in Bilbao’s territory. Williams used one touch to tap the ball forward before he sped between two defenders, streaked to the area, and rounded goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik before gliding the ball home.

“What I have experienced today is incredible,” Williams said. “Personally, I am so happy to score at San Mames after such a long time. It is very important.”

Williams also scored Bilbao’s winning goal last round on the road. Its first back-to-backs wins of the season were good enough to lift the Basque club out of the relegation zone.

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Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema injures right hand

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema had to be substituted at halftime of Sunday’s Spanish league match at Real Betis after hurting his right hand.

Madrid coach Santiago Solari said Benzema had fractured his hand.

“He was in a lot of pain,” Solari said.

Madrid was already without Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Marco Asensio, Mariano Diaz and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to injury.

Benzema needed to be attended by team doctors when he fell after a brush with a Betis defender in first-half stoppage time.

He was replaced by reserve-team player Cristo Gonzalez during the break.

Benzema leads Madrid in scoring with 12 goals in all competitions this season.