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Man Utd player ratings vs Liverpool: Rashford stars as Red Devils win FA Cup thriller

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UEFA Champions League, best competition in Europe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Premier League, La Liga, Lionel Messi,

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“Sign him up Florentino,” Real Madrid’s fans wrote on Twitter, before manager Zinedine Zidane was asked if he sent a message to the club’s president Florentino Perez.

Kylian Mbappe had just destroyed Barcelona at Camp Nou and 24 hours later Erling Haaland did the same to Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

By the time Real Sociedad trailed 4-0 on Thursday evening to Manchester United, the feeling in Spain became clear: La Liga was in free fall.

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Later that night, Granada beat Napoli and Villarreal saw off Salzburg in a competition it should be remembered that was only six months ago won by Sevilla, for the fourth time in seven years.

In fact, a Spanish team has won the Europa League seven times out of the last 11.

Three of those titles belong to Atletico Madrid, who take on Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, after knocking out the English champions Liverpool last season.

Real Madrid face Atalanta, hoping to prevent a third year without winning the tournament, after winning all of the previous three.

“Spanish teams are still strong, it’s just a moment,” said Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman last week. “You can’t draw conclusions.”

If there is a need for perspective – that the speed of the fall is in part due to the heights previously reached – Spain’s dominance in Europe has also been receding for some time.

It perhaps began when Barcelona lost to Roma in 2018, continued with the departures of Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, before becoming entrenched, as financial impotence has prevented a revival.

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Certainly for Barcelona and Real Madrid, hesitation in refreshing their squads has been punished to the full, the coronavirus pandemic enforcing a year without spending when they arguably needed to spend most.

Real Madrid’s youngsters are yet to blossom, while Barcelona have watched a historic era grow old, leave or retire.

Atletico Madrid continue to rebuild after their own cluster of iconic departures. Sevilla have endured but Valencia are in a mess.

For most of this century, it has been a question of when not if a generational talent moves to Spain but now there are no guarantees.

Mbappe has long been linked with Zidane but, as Lionel Messi has shown, the best players define themselves by Champions League victories and who could say confidently Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will not own more of those over the coming years than Barcelona and Real Madrid?

Ronaldo and Neymar left, before Messi tried to and still might. Last summer, City pinched Spain’s most exciting young talent, Ferran Torres, while Atletico were powerless to prevent Thomas Partey even joining Arsenal.

And while Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho fronted La Liga’s peak at the end of the last decade, the most charismatic, modern coaches – Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel, Julian Nagelsmann – have plied their trade almost entirely elsewhere ever since.

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Along with Guardiola, they have driven the shift towards a more physical, vertical, high-pressing style, that seems to have left Spanish teams behind.

“Barca always has been a team that has gone for lots of players for their technical qualities and not many for their physical qualities,” said Koeman on Saturday.

“You have to have both, to have balance we want the ball, to play from the back and create chances.

“This team has played very well in that way this season but we need a balanced team, that can be physical, defend and do everything else. To defend you have to have legs.”

Beneath it all lies a financial reality, that Spain’s clubs, including the top two, are no longer among the most generous payers of transfer fees or wages.

Despite La Liga’s attempts to internationalise, foreign investors have still flocked not to Spain but to England, lured by the most lucrative television contracts and biggest audiences across the globe.

As Barcelona and Real Madrid shut up shop last summer, Chelsea and Manchester City spent freely, their billionaire owners offering protection from a pandemic that was paralysing clubs almost everywhere else.

La Liga president Javier Tebas said the Premier League’s transfer activity was “excessive” yet while Spain’s more stringent controls on spending may pay dividends in the future, in the present they are also restrictive.

“Financial solvency is very important,” said Tebas. “When the crisis is over, our clubs will be as strong as before.”

If an economic revival is swift, rebuilding will take longer. Mbappe and Haaland would not be joining Europe’s best, they would be catalysts for a recovery.

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Tony Popovic axed by Greek club Xanthi

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Former Perth Glory and Western Sydney Wanderers coach Tony Popovic has been sacked by Greek second division club just nine matches into his tenure.

Despite Xanthi’s 2-1 weekend win over cellar dwellers OF Ierapetra, which left them in fifth spot on the ladder, Popovic was given his marching orders.

Xanthi owner, Greek-Australian businessman Bill Papas, said: “I want to thank Tony for the excellent work he has offered to the team since September 2020 when he took office.

“With great sadness and respect for Tony, we announce the end of our partnership.

“I wish Tony and his family all the best for the future.”

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Popovic’s axing comes three weeks after the club’s goalkeeper coach, former Socceroos gloveman Zeljko Kalac, parted ways with Xanthi.

Xanthi’s squad includes Popovic’s sons Kristian and Gabriel, former Sydney FC and Melbourne City midfielder Josh Brillante, ex-Adelaide United goalkeeper Paul Izzo, former Western Sydney defender Matt Jurman and New Zealand under 20 international Callan Elliot.

It’s the second time Popovic has been sacked by a European club after being shown the door by Turkish outfit Karabükspor in 2017 after just nine games at the helm.

Popovic’s latest sacking comes less than three months after another Australian coach, Kevin Muscat, was axed by Belgian club Sint-Truiden after only 14 games in charge.

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Sydney FC’s Alex Wilkinson to make 300th appearance

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Sydney FC captain Alex Wilkinson could easily have been making his 300th A-League appearance with – rather than against – Melbourne City.

The 36-year-old former Socceroos defender’s memorable career reaches another milestone at AAMI Park on Tuesday night when he chalks up a triple century of A-League matches.

His opponents will be Melbourne City, who offered him the chance to again play in Australia in 2016 after his contract expired with Korean club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

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“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen afterwards when I headed overseas (in 2012) but I always thought that at some stage I’d come back,” Wilkinson said.

“The Korean season finished in November-December, and a lot of the A-League squads were full so I was really grateful that Melbourne City gave me the opportunity to go down there and play.

“It was by no means a short-term fix. I was really open to the possibility of staying down there for the following season.”

But when Sydney FC showed interest in signing Wilkinson for the 2016-17 campaign and beyond, the chance for the former Central Coast Mariners skipper to return home to New South Wales was too good to refuse.

“It worked out really well when I did come back to Australia. My wife was pregnant with our second child and the timing to come back to Sydney worked out perfectly,” he said.

“It ticked all the boxes off the pitch and also on the pitch as well … but I had a fantastic time in Melbourne and I’ve only got good things to say about Melbourne City.

“It’s funny how it works out that my 300th is against a team I played for, and it’s nice in a way, but once you’re on the pitch, you’re not thinking about it too much, you’re just out there to win the game. It doesn’t matter who it’s against.”

Even if it was against the Mariners, despite his ongoing admiration for the Gosford-based club with whom he made 172 A-League appearances.

“I’ve got so many positive things to say about that club,” Wilkinson said.

“To see them go through some hard times is never good, but it looks like they’ve definitely turned the corner this year.

“It’s good to see them doing so well – just hopefully not against us again.”

The Mariners beat Sydney 2-0 last month. It has been the Sky Blues only loss this season.

“We’re tracking along OK I think. We’ve still got room for improvement but so you should at this time of the season,” three-time A-League championship-winner Wilkinson said.

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