Madrid’s ‘Worst Game Of Season’ In Betis Defeat, Lets Barca Back In

 

Real Madrid’s response to winning the Clasico was another surprise defeat on Sunday as they lost 2-1 away at Real Betis to hand the initiative straight back to Barcelona.

Betis were deserving victors of a thrilling contest at the Benito Villamarin where two galling Madrid errors cost them their place at the top of La Liga, with Barca now two points clear.

A heavy touch from Sergio Ramos led to Sidnei’s stunning opener for Betis and then Karim Benzema, who equalised with a penalty on the stroke of half-time, was at fault for their 82nd-minute winner.

Benzema’s misplaced pass in midfield allowed Cristian Tello to go clear and he held his nerve to give Betis their first victory in eight games that adds yet another twist to this season’s back-and-forth title race.

“We lacked everything today,” said Real coach Zinedine Zidane.

“It was our worst game of the season. We lacked energy, fluency, possession, aggression. It was a bad day and that can happen. I am responsible. We can’t lose our heads but we can’t be happy either.”

Madrid appeared to have taken a significant step forward, at least psychologically, by beating Barcelona 2-0 last weekend but this result undid all their good work at the Santiago Bernabeu while bringing defensive doubts swiftly back to the surface.

Betis climb to 12th and put eight points between themselves and the bottom three.

Madrid have now lost three out of their last four games and won only two from seven, a dip in form that has appeared even more charitable given Barca’s own problems on and off the pitch.

After a game at home to Eibar on Friday, Zinedine Zidane’s side will travel to Manchester City in the Champions League but on this evidence their hopes of recovering their 2-1 home defeat from the first leg would seem faint at best.

Ramos will be suspended at the Etihad Stadium and his own poor run of form continued against Betis, where he was at fault for their first goal and then complicit in compounding Benzema’s error for the second.

“We haven’t played the way we trained all week,” said Ramos. “We have to be self-critical. And now we have to wait for those above us to slip up.”

Eder Militao will likely come in for Ramos against City and he was given an outing at right-back in the absence of the ill Dani Carvajal while Marcelo was preferred to Ferland Mendy on the opposite side.

Gareth Bale was left out of the starting line-up for a fourth match running.

Betis were the better side in the first half and might have taken the lead earlier had Marc Bartra not headed over from four yards or Thibaut Courtois not reacted quickly to push away Nabil Fekir’s thundering shot.

But five minutes before half-time they finally broke through, aided by Ramos, who tried to dribble the ball out after Fekir’s shot was blocked only for a heavy touch to allow the forward to retrieve.

Off balance, Ramos bundled into Fekir and probably would have conceded a penalty had the loose ball not spilled to Sidnei, who instead hammered it into the top corner.

Deservedly in front, Betis then went in level at the interval as Sidnei, perhaps with the adrenaline still pumping, fouled Marcelo in the box. Benzema drove into the bottom corner for only his third goal this year.

Both teams had chances to find a winner. A scintillating Betis break ended with Sergio Canales sending Joaquin through but after rounding Courtois he tried to square back to Canales when the net looked open. Luka Modric sprinted back and hacked away.

Madrid enjoyed their own spell of pressure as Modric’s shot from distance was saved and Mendy, on for Marcelo, curled onto the crossbar, helped on its way by the fingertips of Joel Robles.

But it was Betis that landed the decisive blow, again benefitting from a Madrid mistake. Benzema came deep and his pass inside was loose, persuading Ramos to dash out to intercept but he was beaten and left stranded.

Andres Guardado put Tello through the gap and he sent Courtois diving towards one corner before sliding the ball into the other.

Bale Returns As Madrid Come From Behind To Beat Osasuna

 

Gareth Bale came back into the team and Real Madrid came back to beat Osasuna on Sunday as a 4-1 victory in Pamplona strengthened their hold on top spot in La Liga.

Bale had been left out completely for Madrid’s previous four matches but the Welshman returned to the squad and the starting line-up at El Sadar, in a surprise show of faith from coach Zinedine Zidane.

A fortuitous deflection meant Bale assisted Isco’s equalizer too before Sergio Ramos put Madrid in front after Unai Garcia had given Osasuna an early lead.

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Substitutes Lucas Vazquez and Luka Jovic then scored from late breaks as Madrid pulled six points clear of Barcelona, who play away at Real Betis later on Sunday.

Barca’s exit in the Copa del Rey overshadowed Madrid’s own shock defeat at home to Real Sociedad in the quarter-finals, a loss that brought a dramatic end to their 21-match unbeaten run.

But Zidane will be relieved to see his team swiftly back on track with a performance full of the kind of resilience that Madrid’s rivals have so lacked in recent weeks.

Bale also keeps coming back under Zidane and the 30-year-old had chances to add a goal to a spirited display before going off to a decent reception from the away support in the second half.

This was only his third appearance since the turn of the year.

Osasuna were the better side in the early stages and took a deserved lead when Unai put his head in front of Casemiro’s dangling foot and steered the ball into the corner.

But Madrid improved as the half wore on and Isco volleyed in an equaliser after Bale attempted to divert Ferland Mendy’s cross, with the ball deflecting kindly into the Spaniard’s path.

Ramos was lucky to escape a red card after sliding in on Ruben Garcia with a high foot and Madrid’s captain took full advantage of his reprieve as he nodded in Casemiro’s looping header to the back post.

Luka Modric had a strong claim for a penalty after he nipped the ball away from Pervis Estupinan in the area before Osasuna enjoyed their most threatening spell.

Inigo Perez’s shot whistled just over and Ruben dragged wide from Nacho Vidal’s pull-back after making space with a neat dummy past Ramos.

Bale went off to applause from the small number of away fans, and Vazquez came on to add a third. Osasuna’s defence were occupied by a Karim Benzema burst and he fed right for Vazquez to drive in. Jovic smashed in a fourth in injury-time.

Relief For Barca As Messi Ensures Setien Enjoys Winning Start

 

 

Quique Setien may want a different Barcelona but he needed the same old Lionel Messi on Sunday as the Argentinian gave his new coach a winning start with the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Granada.

Messi’s strike in the 76th minute won a cagey contest at the Camp Nou and prevented the much-anticipated launch of Setien’s new era becoming something of a damp squib.

Victory also sends Barca back to the top of La Liga on goal difference, after Real Madrid had briefly claimed first place following their win over Sevilla on Saturday.

It would have been different if Granada’s Yan Eteki hadn’t struck the post with just over 20 minutes left or their central defender German Sanchez not been sent off for a needless second yellow card soon after.

The extra man was the boost Barca needed and Messi duly poked home his 17th goal in 21 games this season following good work by Arturo Vidal, Antoine Griezmann and the 20-year-old Riqui Puig.

All three had reasons to impress, particularly Puig, whose inclusion on the bench was an early indication of Setien’s belief in youth. Puig’s contribution after coming on should mean more opportunities are to come.

Setien said last week that if he could make one guarantee, it was that Barcelona would play good football while he is in charge and although few could argue this was a transformative display following the sacking of Ernesto Valverde, there were certainly some encouraging signs.

The passing was faster, the pressing higher and Messi spent most of the match playing down the middle, with Griezmann on the left and Ansu Fati, another youngster, on the right.

Slick Barca dominate

Setien claimed on Saturday he would never go home happy after winning and playing badly but a 1-0 victory gets his tenure off to a positive start and, with Real Madrid showing no sign of stuttering, he could hardly afford anything less.

His team had 83 per cent possession in the first half but chances were not as clear-cut and, as it was under Valverde, nearly everything went through Messi.

His driving run teed up Fati, who shot over, and then a cutting reverse pass set Alba away but Fati failed to finish at the back post.

Messi won the ball back on the ground and then nipped past two players. He flashed wide at the end of a fluid team move and missed from two free-kicks.

Barca were slick, evidently trying to pass faster and press with more aggression. Messi and Sergio Busquets chased and Griezmann did too, at one point earning the approval of the home fans after sprinting to provide cover at right-back.

Vidal has always harried and when he won the ball back early in the second half, Barca had a four against two. But Messi’s pass was heavy and the angle for Vidal became too acute.

The game drifted and tension grew but two moments proved crucial. First Eteki’s shot was kept out only by the post as he drove hard past the right hand of Ter Stegen.

Then, less than five minutes later, Granada were reduced to 10 men after German picked up a second yellow card for a late hack on Messi. It left Granada needing to survive 21 minutes and they only made it through eight.

Puig, on for Ivan Rakitic, recovered possession in the corner before Messi picked up the ball centrally. In a flash, he played in Griezmann, who found Vidal, whose swivelled a flick back into the path of Messi and he poked a finish into the corner.

Setien threw both arms into the air and looked to the sky, with joy and also relief.

Barcelona Set To Sack Valverde, Reports Suggest

 

 

Barcelona are set to sack their coach, Ernesto Valverde, according to reports in the Spanish press.

Valverde took training on Monday morning but his future looks bleak, with the club expected to announce his departure following a board meeting in the afternoon at Camp Nou.

Valverde arrived more than two hours early at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper and took training as usual, despite Barca’s public pursuit of their iconic former midfielder Xavi Hernandez at the weekend.

Xavi, currently the coach of Qatari team Al-Sadd, indicated he is not prepared to take charge immediately but the negotiations left Valverde in limbo.

After training on Monday, Valverde met with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Bartomeu then drove to Camp Nou, where he held a board meeting with several club officials including chief executive Oscar Grau, technical secretary Javier Bordas, vice president Jordi Cardoner and sporting director Eric Abidal.

According to Catalunya Radio, Valverde was told the club would negotiate the terms of his exit with his agent. ESPN added that Valverde had collected his belongings from the training ground.

Barca could install a temporary replacement like B team coach Francisco Javier Garcia Pimienta, perhaps with a view to appointing Xavi at the end of the season.

Otherwise, they could opt for a more permanent solution immediately. Former Tottenham Hotspur coach Mauricio Pochettino is a viable option, despite his previous claims he would never coach Barcelona due to connections with rivals Espanyol.

Ex-Real Betis coach Quique Setien, renowned for an attractive, attacking style of play, is out of work and has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Barcelona’s open hankering after Xavi has left a bitter taste, particularly with those who believe Valverde, who always speaks with sense and integrity, deserves better.

“I feel bad for Valverde, he doesn’t deserve this treatment,” former Barcelona coach, and current Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola said on Sunday. “I hope the situation can be resolved soon.”

European concerns

Barcelona sit top of La Liga, level on points with Real Madrid, and they face Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League next month, after sailing through top of their group.

Yet skepticism around Valverde’s suitability has long been building, with every loss prompting renewed speculation about his future.

Underpinning the doubts are Barca’s last two exits from the Champions League, after the team followed an incredible collapse against Roma in 2018 with a remarkably similar capitulation against Liverpool last year.

Given the obsession with bolstering their record in Europe, many were surprised the club did not opt for a fresh start last summer, even if Valverde’s domestic record has been excellent.

In his two completed seasons, Barca have won two La Liga titles, as well as the Copa del Rey in 2018, and another league title remains very much in sight this term, despite second-placed Madrid’s impressive form in recent weeks.

But Barcelona’s performances have been unconvincing — they have drawn three of their last four league games — and the flaws in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final loss to Atletico Madrid on Thursday, in which they conceded two late goals, felt all too familiar.

There have also been lingering concerns about a more pragmatic style of play, which for some has veered too far from the club’s possession-football DNA.

Nostalgia remains for the brilliance of Guardiola’s side, even if most of the players he was blessed with have gone.

When Valverde arrived to succeed Luis Enrique in 2017, Barcelona were wounded, hurting after the shock departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain and humiliated, as consecutive defeats by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup hinted at trouble for the season ahead.

Instead, Valverde steadied the ship and galvanised the team.

They lost one league game en route to winning the title and the year after, they won again, finishing 11 points ahead of Atletico and 19 clear of Real.

Increasingly, though, Valverde’s achievements have faded from view and his failures then began to overshadow them, leaving Barcelona to consider that his time might be up.

Bale Says He Gets More Enjoyment From Wales Than Real Madrid

Wales’ forward Gareth Bale poses before the Euro 2020 football qualification match between Slovakia and Wales in Trnava on October 10, 2019. VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP

 

Gareth Bale has risked fuelling the criticism of his commitment to Real Madrid by admitting on Friday he is more excited playing for Wales than for the Spanish giants.

Bale has not featured for Real since scoring in his country’s 1-1 draw against Croatia on October 13 and a calf injury has prevented him from even training with his club’s first-team squad.

So his decision to join up with Wales for their final Euro 2020 qualifiers against Azerbaijan in Baku on Saturday and Hungary on Tuesday has drawn negative comments in the Spanish press.

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“I definitely have more excitement playing for Wales,” Bale said at a press conference in Baku.

“I’ve been with most of the older players since we were in the Under-17s. It’s like playing with your mates down the park on a Sunday. It’s normal.

“With Wales, I’m speaking my own language and feel more comfortable. But it doesn’t change what I do on the pitch. I always give 100 percent on the pitch wherever I am, that’s what I always strive to do.”

Former Real players and the media regularly accuse Bale of putting his love of golf before the club.

“I find it hilarious, to be honest, especially some of the pictures and stuff my friends send me,” Bale said.

“On one it said triple bogey – and I’ve never had a triple bogey! At least give me an albatross! It’s funny.

“Some of the things I have seen, people don’t understand and don’t know what they’re on about. So I just find it quite funny.”

To have a chance of qualifying for their second successive European Championship, Wales probably need to win both games.

Bale said he wasn’t sure he would play the whole of both matches but defended his return to action in time for the Wales matches.

“I’ve done as much as I can in terms of trying to get back as quick as I can.

“If there had been a Real Madrid game this week, I would’ve been fit and training to play. Maybe to them, it doesn’t look great, but it’s just a kind of coincidence that the national team comes around this week.”

How Messi’s Dead-Ball Hat-Trick Put Barca Back On Top

 

Lionel Messi delivered an incredible dead-ball hat-trick on Saturday to steer Barcelona to a 4-1 victory over Celta Vigo and ease the pressure on his coach Ernesto Valverde.

Messi scored with a penalty and then a pair of sumptuous free-kicks either side of half-time after Lucas Olaza had briefly pulled Celta level with a free-kick of his own at Camp Nou. Sergio Busquets drove home to make sure of the win late on.

A 34th treble in La Liga puts Messi equal with Cristiano Ronaldo, while a much-needed win sends Barca above Real Madrid on goal difference and back to the top of the table at the end of a testing week.

“It is impossible not to depend on Messi, he illuminates everything,” said Valverde. “We depend on him like any team would depend on him. He unlocked the game.”

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Madrid had briefly claimed first place after continuing their own goal-surge by hammering Eibar 4-0, a game in which Karim Benzema scored twice and Eden Hazard exploded into life.

But while Madrid appear to be hitting their stride, Barcelona’s momentum had stalled. After losing to Levante and failing to break down Slavia Prague in the Champions League, scrutiny had again turned on Valverde and his future as Barcelona coach.

Barcelona’s disgruntled fans had whistled their team against Slavia in midweek and when Olaza equalised for Celta, that tension and restlessness threatened to return.

Instead, Messi took command, this hat-trick taking his tally to nine goals in seven games, 612 in total for his club.

“Obviously when it’s tight we have the advantage of having the best player in the world and the best free-kick taker in the world,” said Busquets.

Yet his precision from free-kicks is a skill the 32-year-old has worked on and improved in recent years, his conversion rate currently at four goals from his last seven attempts in the league.

The last time a player scored a hat-trick from set-pieces in La Liga was when Messi himself achieved the same feat in 2012 against Espanyol, albeit with two penalties and one free-kick.

There was good news for Barcelona too in the return of Luis Suarez, who came off the bench after recovering from a calf strain.

Messi scored his penalty in the 23rd minute after Joseph Aidoo had blocked Nelson Semedo’s cross with his hand.

It was Messi that conceded the foul for Olaza’s curling free-kick that was well-hit enough to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen, even if the goalkeeper might have been disappointed not to be able to get across.

There was little Celta keeper Ruben Blanco could do about Messi’s efforts, the first in stoppage time before the interval and the second three minutes after the restart.

They were almost carbon copies of each other, bending over the wall and nestling in the top right-hand corner.

Celta, under their new coach Oscar Garcia, never looked like mounting a comeback and Busquets put the result beyond doubt with a low shot five minutes from the finish.

Real’s players might have been watching on their way home from Ipurua, where they went three up inside 29 minutes, Sergio Ramos scoring a penalty between two Benzema strikes, the second also a spot-kick after Ramos delegated to his teammate. Fede Valverde added a fourth in the second half.

Benzema’s double takes him to 157 goals for Real Madrid, above Ferenc Puskas into sixth in the club’s all-time list, but his excellent display was trumped by a creative masterclass from Hazard.

“His first half was very impressive,” said coach Zinedine Zidane. “We are happy and he will be a huge player for Madrid, for sure.”

Hazard’s vintage performance

Benzema latched onto Hazard’s pass in the 17th minute and after Valverde and Luka Modric missed, the ball spilled back to the Frenchman, who found the corner from an acute angle.

Three minutes later it was two, Hazard the creator again, his feet too quick for Pablo De Blasis, who caught his opponent’s right leg. Ramos slid the penalty home.

Hazard sparkled, with a brilliant nutmeg, a ‘rabona’ cross and too many glides past defenders to count.

Ramos passed on the second Madrid penalty, awarded for a foul on Lucas Vazquez, to allow Benzema to make it three before Valverde had added a fourth, cracking in Modric’s pass for his first goal in La Liga.

Antoine Griezmann Signs For Barcelona

 

Barcelona announced the signing of Antoine Griezmann on Friday after the Spanish champions paid La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid the 120 million euro ($135 million) release clause required to sign the World Cup winner.

“The player will sign a contract with his new club for the next five seasons, through to 30 June 2024, with a buyout clause of 800 million euros,” Barca said in a statement.

Friday’s announcement brings to an end a dispute between the two clubs and Griezmann, who had long aimed to move to the Catalan giants.

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The 28-year-old failed to show up for his side’s pre-season gathering on Sunday after he had announced in May he would be leaving the Wanda Metropolitano, even though he could not reveal his destination until his release clause dropped from 200 million euros to 120 million euros at the start of the month.

last week Atletico accused Barcelona and Griezmann of a “lack of respect” after the Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu revealed the two clubs had held talks about the former Real Sociedad forward.

Atletico also claimed that Griezmann had told the club that he had struck a deal with Barcelona in March, just days before the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Juventus, which saw them dumped out by a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick after winning the first leg 2-0 in Madrid.

Griezmann joined Atletico in 2014 and has scored 133 goals in 257 appearances, lifting the Europa League in 2018.

He finished top scorer at Euro 2016 when France were beaten in the final on home soil by Portugal before helping to guide his team to World Cup triumph in Russia last year.

AFP

Barcelona Win Second Straight Spanish League Title

Luis-SuarezBarcelona on Saturday won its second straight Spanish league title after defeating Granada 3-0, with a hat trick by Luis Suarez.

The result concluded a five-game winning streak that allowed the Catalan club to finish one point ahead of Real Madrid, which had 90 points from 38 games.

Madrid defeated Deportivo 2-0 in La Coruna with two goals by Cristiano Ronaldo, but it needed Barcelona to stumble to clinch its first title since 2012.

After the final whistle in Granada, Barcelona players formed a circle near the benches and jumped up and down while chanting “Campeones, Campeones.”

Hundreds of fans from both teams invaded the pitch as players struggled to find their way off the pitch.

Barcelona, which finished with 91 points, has won six of the last eight Spanish league titles, and eight of the last 12. It has 24 trophies in total, eight less than Real Madrid, the league’s most successful club.

Saturday’s win helped Barcelona avoid what would have been a disastrous title loss after it led Madrid by 12 points with nine rounds to go.

The title is a deserved consolation for the club that crashed out of the Champions League in the quarter-final, losing to Atletico Madrid.

Abdullahi Shehu Scores First Goal In Portugal

Abdullahi-ShehuNigerian midfielder, Abdullahi Shehu, has scored his first goal for Portuguese side, Madeira, in a 3-nil thumping of Nacional in the Portuguese top-flight.

The goal is Shehu’s first in the Liga NOS since his summer switch from Kuwaiti side, Al Qadsia.

The former Kano Pillars midfielder set Madeira on their way with the opening goal in the 30th minute of the game.

Abdullahi has been able to cement his place in the Madeira side after initial struggles and has been involved in 12 straight matches.