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Barcelona and Real Madrid have their issues, but who needs to win El Clasico more?



BARCELONA — Let me remind you of a Clasico-related statistic which is absolutely jaw-dropping and seems to be barely mentioned.

Real Madrid are, pound for pound, the most successful and prestigious club side in the history of football. No doubt about it. Not because they’ve won the most Spanish league titles by far (34 to Barcelona’s 26), but because they have utterly dominated the most powerful footballing continent since the European Cup was invented in the 1950s.

Whether it’s the early stranglehold of five straight European Cup wins from 1956-1960, the epic middle stage between 1998’s redemption and perhaps the greatest goal in a Champions league final (Zinedine Zidane‘s volley in 2002), or the first hat trick of wins (2016-18) since Bayern Munich (1974-76), Real Madrid write big football stories and paint their signature across their continent with a flourish.

So, consider this: Real Madrid, this footballing behemoth, have retained the Spanish title just once — yes, please check your eyes, ONCE in the last 30 years.

This is the competition which many top footballers and managers emphasise, over and again, is the most significant prize. The 38-week slog; a litmus test not simply of budget or skill but of grit, determination, character, luck and sheer bloody-mindedness. The competition which Zidane said made him the “happiest” to have won.

From 1990 onwards Los Blancos have won the title in 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2017 and 2020. But for the exception of the Fabio Capello/Bernd Schuster follow-on triumphs from 2006-08, Real Madrid conquering La Liga has been followed by either Deportivo La Coruna, Valencia, Atletico or Barcelona taking it away from them.

What’s that saying about it being easier to reach the top than to stay there? A priori, this was their year. The opportunity to end this dismal record was simply beckoning to them: Barcelona and Valencia in various degrees of disarray; Atletico Madrid fighting to keep hold of Jan Oblak and Jose Gimenez, without the budget to reinforce heavily and Thomas Partey heading to London; Sevilla threatening but without any experience of winning Spain‘s Primera Division since 1946.

It’s not quite Madrid’s league just for the taking, but a certainly a golden chance to remove a stain on their otherwise gleaming record and retain their crown.

Cut to the present. As the first Clasico of the season approaches, Madrid are admittedly just a point off the top, having played fewer matches than the leaders, and are ahead of traditional rivals Atleti and Barca — who both have a game in hand.

However, Zidane’s team has degenerated from playing pretty unimpressively in the first few weeks to performing absolutely atrociously against newly-promoted Cadiz to lose 1-0 last weekend. As the proud Frenchman, such a magnet for success both as a footballer or coach, admitted glumly afterwards: “If Cadiz had stuck two or three past us in that first half then no drama, we’d have had no excuses.” And this about a modest Andaluz club which had never won away at Real Madrid before in their history and only tasted top division football for the first time in 1977.

Madrid then followed up that result with something approaching humiliation in a 3-2 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday. The underlying trend, despite what La Liga’s table says, is that Madrid’s players, in the main, look jaded, not sufficiently committed to the hard work which made them domestically formidable last season.

From powerful to puny in just a few short weeks. There are exceptions, and the prognosis is not wholly gloomy, but Saturday’s Clasico at Camp Nou comes at a bad time. Part of Madrid’s apparently allergic reaction to winning the Spanish title in the first place is that they also have an awful habit of competing poorly in the first Clasico of their title-defence season.

– Madrid ratings: Real slump to dismal defeat vs. Shakhtar
– Barca ratings: Messi, Ansu star in rout of Ferencvaros

Indeed Los Blancos haven’t won that first Clasico as defending champions since December 2007. It was a firm win, at Camp Nou, with a lovely Julio Baptista lob over Victor Valdes as its emblem — Madrid’s second consecutive Spanish championship was eventually won at a canter a few months later. But that win unleashed a whirlwind of new football ideas, personalities and playing philosophy at Camp Nou, with Pep Guardiola being wooed by Joan Laporta not long after Baptista’s shot hit the net … though that’s a whole different story.

A Clasico which is played on matchday seven, in mid-October, simply can’t be called “title-crucial” or a definitive moment for either Barcelona or Madrid. Nevertheless, an away win for Zidane’s troubled side would be a massive first step away from this three-decade long tendency to go all weak and floppy in their title defence.

Lose and there’s certainly time to regroup, recoup the distance and end up with the trophy; win, however, and there would definitely be psychological significance — positive for the reigning champions and negative for the Bambi-steps which Ronald Koeman and his band of talented youngsters are beginning to take in Barcelona.

Unless you’re a diehard Barcelona fan it’s arguable that if Madrid were at full speed, if most of their senior players performed around their best, then Koeman’s re-shaping of the squad and his daring penchant for trusting ability irrespective of youth might be buffeted off course. Temporarily at least.



Ale Moreno thinks Lionel Messi has finally realised the “false nine” position doesn’t suit his style of play.

Barcelona are undoubtedly working harder, look less lackadaisical, in fact disinterested, than under Quique Setien. In patches against a paper-thin Villarreal, throughout the 10-man victory over Celta in Vigo, for first-half spells in the 1-0 loss against Getafe, then for the majority of their 5-1 thrashing of Ferencvaros in the Champions League, Barcelona have been genuinely fun to watch.

There’s a huge wave of freshness, impishness, hard work, inventiveness and daring from Sergino Dest, Pedri, Francisco Trincao, Ansu Fati, Ronald Araujo and even the long-absent and mysteriously dopy Ousmane Dembele. Bit by bit, Frenkie de Jong is dusting off his armoury of skills, Lionel Messi isn’t sulking, Miralem Pjanic will soon be pushing to take Sergio Busquets‘ position and Philippe Coutinho has become a much more confident, impulsive footballer since his boot-camp reboot saw him win the Treble on loan at Bayern Munich.

Nevertheless there’s a scenario where four guys who are 20 or under — Trincao, Pedri, Ansu and Dest — have important roles against Madrid. Ditto two constantly injured strangers to the first-team, Junior Firpo and Dembele.

These are all, in the heat of a ‘no quarter given’ battle, decent sized risks. And Koeman now has a big dilemma as to whether Antoine Griezmann, who just can’t catch a break and probably wouldn’t be confident of catching a beach ball if it were thrown to him from close range, should start. Good player, good guy, but a good distance away from looking convincing.

So if Zidane had an XI with Thibaut Courtois, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Ferland Mendy, Luka Modric, Federico Valverde, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard all fit, in decent form and brimming with competitive aggression, you’d back them to come to Camp Nou and win. But he doesn’t. Far from it.

That Casemiro and Courtois are by far two of Madrid’s three most important footballers — the other being Ramos — tells you a lot. This stellar, scintillating, star-driven football outfit don’t yet have a player — not Benzema, not Vinicius Jr. (yet), nor Hazard (when?), certainly not poor old €60m striker Luka Jovic who is making Griezmann’s current form look like Ballon d’Or standard — who takes our breath away. No creative magician; no relentless goal poacher.

Benzema is a diamond, but he’s more of an acquired taste and, currently, he’s struggling for form; Vinicius is gradually adding brains to his brio and bravado; while Hazard, according to his Belgium teammate Courtois, will “erupt” soon. Well, perhaps in mid-November according to the smoke signals from Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground.

Will Ramos definitely be fit and on form? I would have said that he’ll play come hell or high water but why is it always on him, aged 34 and perpetually the hungriest man at Real Madrid, who’s got to produce the Seventh Cavalry act in matches which threaten to slip away?



Ale Moreno slams the first-half performance of Real Madrid in their 3-2 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk.

Casemiro and Valverde are still shaking off the jet lag that comes from respective 30-hour round trips from Brazil and Uruguay and the pressure of playing for their nations in South America’s World Cup qualification process. But it’s Toni Kroos who perturbs me. All season, after a masterclass in winning the title, the German midfield manipulator has been second to the loose ball, slow to press and disinterested in running back to cover gaps. This Madrid team can’t afford that.

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And they simply don’t score a sufficient number of goals either. Not killer goals when they are on top; not lucky goals when they pinch a win; not goals to get out of jail with a draw; not goals which divert in off Benzema’s backside.

In their last 14 Liga matches you’ll find eight single-goal wins, one 0-0 draw and a single goal defeat — perpetually teetering on a tightrope. Those single goal wins look like things of shimmering beauty when you look at them as stats, they count for three points just the same as a 5-0 thrashing and they won Zidane’s squad the title, but the margin for error, if it continues as it has this season, is too slim. Only three two-goal margins in 14 matches for a club like Madrid is not a healthy sign.

Still, Madrid are jam-packed full of talent and character and are liable to squeeze some of those attractive facets out of tired limbs and minds when they see Blaugrana stripes in front of them this weekend. Barcelona are twinkle-toed, slender, and deft — but, last week, Getafe showed Madrid how to out-muscle them.

If Koeman gets his team selection right and they play at a high, confident tempo, then Barca can win. But if Zidane is to become the first Real manager in 30 long years to retain the title then it’s Madrid who go into the game knowing that they ‘must’ win.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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