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49ers' Shanahan reveals Garoppolo has a shoulder sprain but is optimistic QB, Bosa and Warner will play Packers

Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half against Dallas with a right shoulder sprain, Kyle Shanahan revealed Monday. (Author: Gardener)

ShanahanCoach Kyle Shanahan appeared optimistic Monday that the 49ers would have defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner available for their division playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, as well as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Bosa left a 23-17 wildcard win over Dallas late in the first half with a concussion, and Warner was eliminated much later with a sprained ankle. Garoppolo's inclusion on the 49ers' injury list with a right shoulder sprain came as a surprise as he played all four quarters and nothing was said about it after the game. "He made it through the second quarter, had to play through some pain and stuff, but ended up checking everything fine," Shanahan said on a conference call with Beat writers. "He should be good for practice." With the 49ers visiting Lambeau Stadium on Saturday, practice will begin on Tuesday without the usual rest day. Because he's on concussion protocol, his condition is being independently monitored, and whether or not he's cleared to play isn't up to the 49ers. Shanahan sounded hopeful that Bosa would face Green Bay. I've spoken to a number of people who have done this and our coaches," Shanahan said. I've seen that a few times and he seems to be in a pretty good position right now but I won't be the one to judge that." Bosa left the game after colliding with teammate D. He walked away under his own power and waved to the 49ers fans in the stands but was not cleared to return. The positive news from Warner, who briefly returned to the game after his injury and played a total of 59 snaps, is that the sprain was not high in the ankle. "We'll evaluate and see over the course of the week," Shanahan said. "The initial fear was that it might have been a high (sprain), so we got good news about it. "Sorry for the scare yesterday everyone, I appreciate everyone showing love and support for me and the boys. Huge win, on to the next one,” Warner tweeted. Sorry for the scare yesterday, I appreciate everyone showing love and support for me and the boys🙏🏾. we will go well we will go well Warner missed the second game in Seattle on December 5 with what Shanahan called a similar ankle sprain. Teammate Jordan Willis, who was one of the defenders who picked up the slack in Bosa's absence, was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain. Shanahan said he hopes linebacker Marcell Harris (Achilles tendonitis) and safety Talanoa Hufanga (knee) would be available for practice. In Week 18, the 49ers came back to beat the Rams without a left tackle for Trent Williams, who was out with an elbow injury. They did it again on the defensive front without Bosa, who left late in the first half and failed to return after suffering a concussion. His day ended after a season low of 23 snaps. Bosa and Samson Ekuban worked together for a sack against Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott on the Cowboys' opening drive to save a 10-yard loss on a third and 13. In the second half without Bosa, the 49ers were left without the comeback candidate 2021 Player of the Year who finished the regular season with 15 1/2 sacks, up the pressure. The 49ers were able to sack Prescott four times and got natural pressure from the front four as well as an occasional blitz from K'waun Williams and Jimmie Ward, who was called out by defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Defensive end Charles Omenihu, a season takeover from Houston, hadn't caught more than 20 snaps in a game with the 49ers but had 34 against Dallas. He led the 49ers with 1 1/2 sacks. Ekuban played 53 snaps, his highest total of the season. "Losing Nick, you know how big a challenge it is," Shanahan said. “The boys have risen enormously, just worked as a unit and got better at everything. You have to get off the ball and attack, so it's a bit messy in how you charge the quarterback, but to have some control over him. Putting two difficult road games behind him and having to play on Saturday means Shanahan will be taking a step back from training this week. Coaches will be working on the Green Bay game schedule Monday night and Tuesday morning, and practice will be later than usual. "I think the biggest thing about this week will be the recovery. So the more sleep we get, the slower we're going to do most things," Shanahan said. - Rookie corner Ambry Thomas had another solid game and Shanahan was particularly impressed with his physicality. "He came out early in the first quarter and was throwing his body around," Shanahan said. - Tight end George Kittle had an 18-yard catch against Dallas and hasn't broke 30 yards in his last four games. Kurtenbach: Kyle Shanahan's game management needs to improve for the 49ers to keep winning. The 49ers win does make for great television - as does the fourth playoff game against the 49ers McDonald: 49ers good enough to survive the reappearance of "Bad Jimmy" and hold up against Dallas "We got George a lot ( over the middle) and people know that, so they go to stop him there and we have to do it. It's better to find other ways to get him the ball," Shanahan said. "But I also know when he attracts coverage and things like that, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to get other people into good situations. He'll get his balls in the end.” — Shanahan and Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur shared a tense moment after Green Bay's 30-28 win over the 49ers in Week 3, which ended with a 51-yard field goal from Mason Crosby ended up at gunpoint. But Shanahan said everything was fine with LaFleur, who was quarterbacks coach with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015-16 when Shanahan was offensive coordinator. Matt and I are absolutely fine. I was pissed after that game how it just ended,” said Shanahan. But we are good. I talk to Matt a lot. He's done a damn good job this year.

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How the Chiefs attacked the Steelers coverage - and what it says about their Super Bowl chances

Delve into how the Kansas City Chiefs' passing game solved the mysteries posed by the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense Sunday night. (Author: Gardener)

SteelersIn October, the Kansas City Chiefs were bottom of the AFC West table. Many were on the defensive side of football as that unit looked like a real liability. But concerns about defense flowed into offense as Patrick Mahomes and co seemed to have a serious problem. Teams played against them with two-deep safes, whether cover 2s, cover 4s (quarters), or cover 6s (quarter-quarter-half), forcing the Chiefs to either try to throw deep against those looks, either with Under options to settle, or even run the football. Since then, the Chiefs have started figuring out how to attack that defense. On the track, however, the Chiefs' offense looked more like the unit we expected earlier in the season. That was also true Sunday night when Kansas City dismantled the Pittsburgh Steelers with a final score of 42-21. While the Chiefs got off to a slow start and were actually behind early in the game, their offense got a roll and didn't stop. After stabbing on three of his first five possessions and turning the ball around on the other two, Kansas City scored a touchdown on his next six possessions to retire. Looking at their passing game, the Chiefs seemed to have an answer, especially as they retired for whatever the Steelers threw at them. On Sunday night, an interesting element was watching how Pittsburgh would attempt to defend the Chiefs' passing game. During the season, the Steelers completed single covers (Cover 1/Cover 3) on 282 passing plays, which is 11th in the league according to Sports Info Solutions chart data. In contrast, the Steelers were in split-safety looks — cover 2, cover 2-man, cover 4 (quarters) and cover 6 (quarter-quarter-halfs) — with 174 snaps, 25th in the league. At the Week 16 meeting between these two teams, the Steelers were in those split-safety coverages on 15 passing plays and single-high on 13 passing plays. The Steelers are in single-high coverage on this touchdown from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs empty the formation, putting Jerick McKinnon and Travis Kelce in a stack slot on the left, and Hill is the middle receiver on the drives to the right. Hill rides a vertical route while Kelce and McKinnon ride a fast flat-7 smash concept. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety, and while he's caught by the concept and the quarterback, Mahomes opens to his left and faces Kelce and McKinnon's flat-7 smash. Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Fitzpatrick Hill lets go vertically. Security stays at home trying to read this out and breaks off when Mahomes moves his eyes and feet to throw the vertical at Hill, but it's a near-impossible feat. Hill curves his vertical route away from center field, and with the speed and placement Mahomes achieves on that throw, the Chiefs are in the end zone. Mahomes and Hill connected against single-high coverage early in the second quarter, with the quarterback hitting his receiver while staring pressure in his face: This game sees Kansas City again using a stack-slot alignment, this time with Hill and Mecole Hardman aligned to the left. Mahomes runs fake and retreats into the pocket while Hardman runs an out and up down the left side of the field. That pulls the cornerback and Hill can settle under it. Even with facial pressure, Mahomes can drill into this throw to move the chains. Of course, given the consternation earlier this year over the Chiefs and split safety looks, it was important for Kansas City to be able to attack those coverages as well. Mahomes and the Chiefs' passing game made a string of big plays against the two deep covers that had teased them all season. Kansas City faced a 3rd and 11th, and the Steelers ran Cover 2 coverage with a reversal on one side of the field. Mahomes, reading it aloud, drilled into a curl route to Demarcus Robinson, away from safety dropping underneath and ahead of cornerback dropping low: Steelers coming into cover 2, looking this side of the field by taking Drop Fitzpatrick underneath. and turning Joe Haden into the deep halffield alignment. Robinson checks before Haden, and while Fitzpatrick struggles to get in the trajectory, Mahomes is able to hit him and finish the throw thanks to the concept and the way he uses his eyes. Hill is again aligned as the center receiver on this side of the field and runs a deep sit route across the football, angling towards center of the field. That's where Mahoems looks first, forcing Fitzpatrick to try to split the difference between Hill and Robinson. It's only late in the game and after scaling the pocket that Mahomes turns his gaze outside at Robinson. Part of the appeal of playing those two-deep coverages against Mahomes and the Chiefs is that you give yourself a numerical advantage in the high school. A problem arises when you can't generate that pressure and the quarterback can buy time in the pocket, which allows the stretches to strain coverage in the secondary. The Steelers are in cover 2 this game, and once again Hill is the middle receiver in the trips formation on the left. He runs a deep cornering route, first angling towards the middle of the pack - where he could split the safeties - before turning back to the outside. Meanwhile, Kelce (aligned as an Inside Trips receiver) drives a crossing route that works from left to right. Mahomes, initially seeing the cover and a push from the right edge, begins to slide into the pocket. This catches the eye of Tre Norwood, who is in the center of the field covering Kelce. That little bit of separation is all Mahomes needs as he hits his tight end that ends the game for a touchdown. The Kansas City offense fired on all guns Sunday night against a variety of media outlets.

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' hopes of a Super Bowl replay rest on the defense's encore performance

Tom Brady could use a boost from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense that was so important during the stretch run to win last Super Bowl. (Author: Gardener)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers'TAMPA -- If there was one game from the blowout that epitomized the state of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they intensified their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions, it came courtesy of Shaquil Barrett midway through the third quarter on Sunday. Barrett rose to the sky to deflect the pass - to himself - for an open field interception. "That was the play of the year!" Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans declared after Tampa Bay beat Philadelphia 31-15 to advance to the NFC division playoffs. From NFL games to college sports scores, all the top sports news you need to know every day. Evans, who blew up Philly's heavy-man coverage for nine catches and 117 yards, had a pretty impressive performance himself on the first snap after Barrett's tip pick. He pivoted up after catching a pass from a corner route, shook off a defender, tiptoed to the touchline and ended a 36-yard touchdown with a backflip. Yet the big-play wideout seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Barrett's performance, which began with a shrewd football IQ and ended with remarkable athleticism. Barrett showed he was back in form after missing the last two games with a knee injury. "He looked healthy as hell running, didn't he?" Bucs coach Bruce Arians marveled at Barrett's return. OPINION: Bucs blow out Eagles but tougher tests loom for defending champions. NEVER MISS A SNAP: Sign up for our NFL newsletter for exclusive content. That's some serious good news for the defending champions (14-4), who have spent this season trying to beat injury attrition as much as they have with their opponents. Barrett was one of three key starters to return to the Todd Bowles-coordinated defense after missing several games. Linebacker Lavonte David came off injured reserve where he was recovering from a foot injury and missed three games. Linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul missed the last three games while struggling through a torn rotator cuff, which he described as the worst soccer injury of his career. Beginning cornerbacks Carlton Davis (back) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (hamstring) were also considered "if in doubt" all week. Davis made it back; Murphy-Bunting did not make a game day decision. And it's no better on the other side of football. The Bucs were without their two best running backs, Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. Fournette has missed three games with a hamstring injury; Jones nurses a twisted ankle. It was hard to guarantee that Bernard, certainly a smart vet, would be as effective after leaving IR and missing four games with hip and knee injuries. "He played his ass off." Arians know it. For the Bucs to legitimately defend their crown, they must live up to the NFL's ubiquitous "Next Man Up" mantra. No two seasons are the same in the NFL, and the Bucs — who brought back all 22 starters from offense and defense in the Super Bowl unit — can vouch for that. On Sunday, while playing with an exhausted receiving corps — star wideout Chris Godwin went down a few weeks ago with a season-ending cruciate ligament tear and now Cyril Grayson is out with a hamstring injury — Brady still managed to win the Eagles slash defenses with cold efficiency. When in trouble, he often looked for Evans and longtime safety Rob Gronkowski (five catches, 31 yards, TD). But with production in reverse, Brady was able to pull off a balanced attack — even if the task was complicated by another injury (four sacks) to hit newly minted All-Pro right tackle Tristin Wirfs, who picked up an ankle injury. But Brady could certainly use a boost from the Bucs defense too, so vital during the stretch run to win last Super Bowl. Brady may have seven rings, but defense wins championships, right? Let's just say Brady can't do it again without a strong defense. You know, complementary football. During the final postseason run, the Bucs won in New Orleans by collecting four turnovers. They upset the Packers in the NFC title game with five sacks by Aaron Rodgers and two turnovers. They crushed the Chiefs in the Super Bowl by beating Patrick Mahomes with three sacks and two picks. For much of this season, however, the Bucs defense has been inconsistent and at times undeniably shaky. No one regrets the injury streak that hampered the Bucs defense. It's the NFL. Injuries are part of the territory. But it's also the perfect time for the Bucs to perhaps field a defense that could be as healthy as it has been all season. "I thought we had our starting defense for the first time since game one and then Sean (Murphy-Bunting) couldn't go at the last second," Arians said. With Barrett and Pierre-Paul spinning on a “pitch count” and David roaming from sideline to sideline again, the Bucs defense looked like their old self as they bottled hurts (39 rushing yards). bottled and contained the passing game. In short, when the front seven are strengthened, the back end suddenly becomes a lot better. "It felt like having your big brother back out there with you," said cornerback Jamel Dean. Tampa Bay gave up the shutout in the fourth quarter. "I feel like it's all starting to come together again," Dean added. "I feel like there was energy there that we lacked in the second half of the season... It felt like we were getting our swag back." That could go a long way towards the next play of the year. This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Tampa Bay Buccaneers hopes for Super Bowl replay hinge on defense performance

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Additions critical for Patriots to take the next step

New England has made progress this season, but it needs upgrades defensively and Mac Jones needs more weapons on offense. (Author: Gardener)

PatriotsThe Patriots spent an unprecedented amount of money fixing what broke after last season. Robert Kraft loosened the purse strings and Bill Belichick spent over $160 million in guaranteed freehand money to add depth, plug gaping holes at certain positions and bring a more competitive team onto the court in 2021. Between a free hand and the draft, where they landed quarterback Mac Jones, along with cornerstones Christian Barmore and Rhamondre Stevenson, the Patriots were certainly more competitive, finishing 10-8. From the standpoint of finding a franchise quarterback and moving in the right direction, the Patriots' season can be considered a success. They were pathetically tight on both sides of the ball when it came to competing with the AFC East's new power, the Buffalo Bills, as well as other elite teams in the league. After suffering an epic 47-17 loss to the Josh Allen-led Bills in Saturday night's wild card round, Belichick must return to the drawing board. During his late-season video call with reporters, Belichick said he wanted to take a "longer perspective" and "evaluate everything we do." Ultimately, the goal now is to build a team capable of defeating the Bills as well as other offensive teams in the AFC. What is this team missing? The Patriots need to get younger, faster, and more athletic across the board, but most importantly with the linebackers. Her age and lack of speed had come into their own against the Bills. Neither linebacker was able to catch Allen as he took off. They also couldn't catch any of the receivers with swing passes from the backfield. Don't'a Hightower has had a career worthy of the Patriots Hall of Fame, but he often couldn't keep up with the quarterbacks or backs and missed a number of tackles. He's supposed to be a free agent. Veterans Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins also struggled with attack speed. It is clear that the area needs to be tackled considering they will have to face Allen at least twice a year for a very long time. Slow and old is a recipe for more embarrassing losses in the years to come against the high-profile offenses they'll face next season and beyond. However, Belichick will have some tough decisions to make, especially with Hightower and Bentley. Rookie linebacker Cameron McGrone, her 2021 fifth-round draft pick from Michigan, is considered an upgrade in terms of speed if he makes the team next year. He was basically having a red shirt year and walking away with a cruciate ligament tear in November. The safeties are in better form with Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger while it remains to be seen what 34-year-old Devin McCourty, another free agent, decides on regarding his future. The Patriots also have sixth-round rookie pick Joshuah Bledsoe who should be fighting for a spot in the secondary school. But the point comes back to carving out some of his turtle-footed linebackers and replacing them with faster, faster versions capable of handling mobile quarterbacks along with their fast-moving weapons. Jackson is an unrestricted free agent. The belief here is that the Patriots will apply the franchise tag to keep it for at least another year. With or without him, the Patriots lack useful depth in terms of border corners. Jonathan Jones, who lost for the year with a shoulder injury, will return next season and handle the slot corner position competently. He was sorely missed against the Bills and other multi-weapon teams. Jalen Mills played an admirable performance from out of position, but Belichick was still forced to play a lot more zone coverage to even out the teams who took advantage of one-on-one situations. Everyone picked them apart, no matter what coverage they were in. The Patriots don't have a strong offense capable of making up large deficits. Jones will continue to grow and improve next year, but it would help if Belichick added at least one receiver that makes the difference. Allen's game didn't really take off until the Bills took over Stefon Diggs. In an attacking league, building around the quarterback is important. The Patriots attempted promotion this past offseason by signing tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith and wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor. Whether it's bringing in a legitimate slot corner or a game-changer like Diggs, the Patriots need to keep up with the current NFL. As for other underachievers, it's harder to let Smith and Agholor go given the hefty contracts they've both signed. The Pats would have to take significant cap hits if the Patriots dropped either one. Smith was a virtual no-show in the passing game. The Patriots need to make better use of his talents. But since they have pretty much a collection of third-party receivers, the Patriots need to beef up the talent in their arsenal, whether it's in free agency, draft or trade.

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Raiders fire GM on turn one of significant offseason

Owner Mark Davis made the first major decision in what could be an eventful offseason for the Las Vegas Raiders. There is much more to come as there will be significant changes for an organization that has only had their second-place finish in the playoffs for the past 19 seasons. (Author: Gardener)

GMFILE - Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock walks to the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021 in Las Vegas. On Monday, January 17, 2022, the Las Vegas Raiders announced they had fired Mayock after three seasons and will begin a search for a coach and GM after finishing second in the playoffs for the past 19 seasons. Owner Mark Davis made the first major decision in what could be an eventful offseason for the Las Vegas Raiders. There is much more to come as there will be significant changes for an organization that has only had their second-place finish in the playoffs for the past 19 seasons. Davis fired general manager Mike Mayock Monday and began organizing interviews with general managers and coaching candidates, leaving interim coach Rich Bisaccia in limbo. Players have voted in favor of Bisaccia staying with the Raiders (10-8) after leading them to four straight wins to end the regular season and reach the playoffs. Las Vegas lost 26-19 to Cincinnati on Saturday and has not won a playoff game since winning the 2002 AFC title game. "I respect their thoughts and feelings and the way they verbalize those things," Bisaccia said. “I think continuity and consistency in any profession could sometimes be a good thing. I'm in the position I'm in and I'm sure Mark and I will have more conversations over the course of the week than we did last night and we'll see how this thing works.” Rich Bisaccia, interim head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, watches the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, January 15, 2022. The Raiders rallied around Bisaccia after a tumultuous regular season marred by the retirement of coach Jon Gruden due to the release of his old offensive emails; and the release of recipient Henry Ruggs III after he was charged with felonies in a fatal drink-driving crash that killed a 23-year-old woman.Players praised Bisaccia for he had kept the team together, leading to a strong ending to the regular season. "Loss hurts the most in defeat," said running back Josh Jacobs. "In the dressing room you don't know who's coming back, you don't know." "I don't know which coaches will come back. One of the big questions the Raiders will face this offseason is what to do with quarterback Derek Carr. Las Vegas must decide whether to reward Carr with a lucrative overtime, let him play." the last year of the deal, or switch to rebuild mode and trade it for draft picks. I'm going to play quarterback, but my message will be spoken about," Carr said. "I'm not going to go to dinner and say, 'We have to do something.' I'm not that guy. The Raiders' decision to overhaul their offensive line last offseason backfired. First-round pick Alex Leatherwood flopped on the right tackle and was still fighting after going inside to defend. Brandon Parker was unmasked at right tackle and John Simpson was outplayed at left guard. Center Andre James showed promise in his first season as a starter and left tackle Kolton Miller was strong. But Las Vegas needs to decide what to do with Leatherwood and likely find at least a new starter or two to strengthen the line. Defense made progress in the freshman year under coordinator Gus Bradley as edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue had strong seasons, middle linebacker Denzel Perryman bolstered run defense, rookies Nate Hobbs and Trevon Moehrig bolstered secondary, and Casey Hayward had a strong season at cornerback. All of those players except Hayward are expected to return in 2022, but the Raiders could use cornerback help, strong safety and defensive tackling to get even stronger. "I feel like we're building something special here," Ngakoue said. Davis will interview coach and general manager candidates and decide which duo will lead the franchise into the future.

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Should we crown Man City champions after beating Chelsea?

It would take something seismic to prevent Man City from winning the Premier League again. PLUS: Real Madrid's latest trophy and more suffering for Man United. (Author: Gardener)

Man CityIt was another fun weekend in European football as Real Madrid lifted a trophy (the Spanish Supercopa) and Manchester City were almost out of the race for the Premier League title... Elsewhere, Bayern Munich and PSG were battling for victory , Liverpool scored three goals Brentford (but struggled without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane) and Man United lost even more points. We also saw Inter Milan finally drop points in Serie A as Atalanta held them to a 0-0 draw. - ESPN+ Viewer's Guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more | Real Madrid can't relax | Man United loses more points | Atalanta, Inter draw | Bayern dig deep | Liverpool trouble minus Mane, Salah | Juve's Dybala dissatisfied | PSG make it | Why has Spurs Arsenal been postponed? Chelsea's trip to the Etihad on Saturday was likely their last chance to reopen the title race. Instead, the 1-0 defeat is 13 points behind with 16 games to go. It's not just the gap either; It's the way City feels like they have other gears to switch to when needed. Romelu Lukaku had Chelsea's best chance early in the second half and squandered it, but even if he had beaten Ederson there was a feeling City would not have been concerned. Even half-chances turn into bigger chances with the talent in the team: look at Kevin De Bruyne's goal. Tuchel bemoaned the fact that his forwards struggled to hold the ball and release pressure. That's true, but (and we've been saying this all season) it's hard to build chemistry and game patterns when the front three have changed all season. In midfield, 20/20 on hindsight, some might have said Jorginho would have been better against City's press but of course that would have meant either N'Golo Kante giving you the best chance of winning back the ball or missing out on Mateo Kovacic, who was in excellent form and offers drive and diligence in midfield. That didn't happen against City. When clubs gamble away big league leads, it's usually because the pursuers get hot and something goes wrong at the top. It's hard to see Chelsea heating up anytime soon, but it's even harder to imagine what could go wrong at City other than maybe something dramatic and off the pitch. Of course injuries can happen but the thing about this group is that it's really hard to figure out whose absence would seriously derail the team. After all, this is a team that went months without Kevin De Bruyne, their most gifted and highest-paid player, and apparently didn't realize it. And this is a team that dropped Ruben Dias, who was invaluable last season, for Chelsea and Lukaku's visit. I messed around with Julien Laurens and Nedum Onuoha on the Gab and Juls show and we kind of agreed that Rodri, Joao Cancelo and Ederson are the hardest to replace simply because of the gap between them and their substitutes. But even then, with the latter two, it's not that the replacement is totally inadequate, rather you'd lose some of the added value they bring. Cancelo certainly brings another dimension, but it's not like you'd play significantly differently if Oleksandr Zinchenko were in his place. Steffen might make less exceptional saves than Ederson and isn't as good with his feet, but it's not a big change. Perhaps Rodri has been the biggest influence for a long time, mainly because Father Time seems to have caught up with Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, while he may be a better footballer, doesn't have the same physical presence. Real Madrid's win over Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final was as sweeping as it gets. They controlled the game and dominated possession (so much for those who deride them as mere counterattacks) and probably should have scored more goals than the two they sacked. And while they weren't under serious threat unless Thibaut Courtois conjures up that kick save before Raul Garcia's penalty (awarded by VAR for Eder Militao's handball), you're looking at an Alamo mess from a finish where anything can happen. Details, to be sure, and probably not enough to spoil their run to LaLiga glory, but against a different opponent (of the kind they'll face in the Champions League knockout stages, no sub-par Athletic Bilbao) on another day, result may have been different. Therefore, it's safe to say that while Carlo Ancelotti is celebrating the trophy - his fifth as Real Madrid manager in his two spells - he could use it as an instructive moment. The games last 90 minutes and it feels a bit dour to say you lost two points because you were stuck on a tie, especially when your opponents scored twice as much xG as you. But you get what Ralf Rangnick means when he says he feels like his Manchester United side have lost two points to Aston Villa. They were 2-0 up, they were playing some of the best football they've played since he arrived - I'll let others speculate how much, if anything, that had to do with Harry Maguire and Jadon Sancho being on the bench and Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford in the stands - and then they conceded twice in the last 15 minutes. Philippe Coutinho's return to the Premier League is a good story and his move no doubt helped Aston Villa, but United have managed poorly in the final 20 minutes, both defensively and offensively: their only shot over that span came deep in stoppage time from Donny van de Beek . There's more - a lot more - for Rangnick to fix here, although the first hour or so is also a sign of what they can do. When asked about Anthony Martial's absence, he said the French striker "didn't want to be in the squad" (possibly because he's hoping for a January move). Martial hit back on social media, saying that was not true and that he would "never turn down playing" or "disrespect fans". Obviously both things can't be true. Either one of the two is going a little Pinocchio here, or there's some kind of massive misunderstanding going on. Anyway, it doesn't look good and something Rangnick could very easily have avoided: a very simple "I felt we had enough options that I didn't pick him" would have sufficed. Inter Milan manager Simone Inzaghi did not address the media after his side's goalless draw with Atalanta - he screamed so much his voice was too hoarse - but it would have been interesting to hear what he was really thinking and if he was a glass half is -full or half-empty type. Happy Inzaghi would have pointed out that Inter matched Atalanta in intensity and physicality, created plenty of chances (Juan Musso made some big saves in Atalanta's goal) and the draw means they took a point from one of their toughest away games ever they ever had left (the other two are Juventus and Napoli). Grumpy Inzaghi would have pointed out that they haven't scored after 39 straight Serie A games, that their winning streak is over after eight games, that Edin Dzeko has squandered a multitude of chances, that Atalanta was too weak and that Samir Handanovic had to make a brilliant save to keep the result. We've seen Inter be crushed by gross overreactions in the past and as long as Grumpy Inzaghi stays away, that won't happen here. Inter aren't quite at the point where they can only beat themselves - Milan are also strong in the Serie A title race - but they can certainly contribute to their downfall. Nowadays a point at Atalanta is a good result for any team. The headline from Bayern's 4-0 win over Cologne is, of course, Robert Lewandowski's hat-trick and the fact that he now has 300 Bundesliga goals. The all-time record, held by the legendary late Gerd Müller, is 365. At 33, Lewandowski is strong and it's not unthinkable that he can reach Müller's mark. A little under the radar - possibly because Cologne were so bad - was the fact that Bayern went on the pitch without five real starters. Marcel Sabitzer found himself at left-back and Marc Roca played alongside Corentin Tolisso (who scored a great goal) in midfield. Don't be fooled by Liverpool's 3-0 win over Brentford on Sunday, or the slamming xG (StatsBomb had it at 3.05 to .52) or the 69 percent possession or 27 shots on six: that was everything else as a simple victory for Jürgen Klopp's men. Until Fabinho's goal – relieved by a fiendish set-piece defense – just before half-time, there was a feeling the visitors might be in for a nasty surprise. And the third goal was a gift from Brentford. That didn't look like a Klopp Liverpool side, possibly because the front three felt so different. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are in the Africa Cup of Nations and Roberto Firmino made his first league appearance since October. All of this resulted in a loss of chemistry (and quality) and reminds you how finely tuned a machine Liverpool is. Still, three points count the most in these circumstances. City are looking far away but if Liverpool win their game in hand and then face the Etihad (big question I know) then we're talking five points which is basically two losses. It may seem unlikely that City will drop many more points, but hey, if you're Klopp you have to keep believing. A few years ago, when he was the next big thing, many thought we would see the kind of performance that Paulo Dybala puts in against Udinese almost every week. He created a beautiful goal, set up Weston McKennie in a 2-0 win over Udinese and was man of the match. And he ended up giving the Juventus bigwigs in the stands a long, cold, hard look - the kind you couldn't help but notice. Dybala, who will become a free agent in June, is unhappy with his contract situation. His agents thought they had a verbal agreement on a new contract until 2026, which would pay him €8m net plus a further €2m net in "simple bonuses" which would be converted into a base salary after two seasons. For those who like to think in pounds a week, Premier League style, that's just over £300,000 a week. It's a huge amount of money - again, for context, there are only six players in the Premier League (where clubs are much healthier financially than Juve at the moment) who earn more than that - and as I wrote the other day, not a shrewd use of it from Juve's resources. Juventus obviously think the same way as they announced they would review the situation in February. He has started less than half of Juve's league games over the past three and a half seasons. But even if he had been outstanding, smart clubs pay for what they think a player will achieve in the future, not for what he's done in the past and there's no reason for anyone to believe Dybala to should be one of the highest paid players in the world between now and 2026. See where you stand and find out how to best use your resources. As I've already hinted at, maybe it's the huge lead that's causing the lack of urgency in this PSG side, or maybe it's the absence of Lionel Messi and Neymar. Anyway, it happened again at home against Brest, a PSG side should be dealt with with ease. They didn't go under but had to rely on two big saves from Gianluigi Donnarumma to save their goal before Kylian Mbappe put them ahead after half an hour. Thilo Kehrer added a second early after the break and they could have had more by the end, but those slow starts feel like they're becoming endemic. Indeed, PSG have somehow managed to drop points in four of their last six Ligue 1 games and yet their lead in the table has shrunk by just one point from 12 to 11. You get a shock before visiting from Nothing good is brewing for Real Madrid in the Champions League in four weeks... Tottenham were far from happy that the North London derby was postponed, as you can read in this succinct statement. The problem with this is that there is far too much we (and Tottenham) don't know to form an opinion other than that the Premier League's lack of clarity is unhelpful and simply encourages more suspicion. When it comes to shifts, you can either have fixed rules - X number of players available - or you can use a "common sense/case-by-case" philosophy. The Premier League rolls with the second (rightly so, I think). They have policies: they must account for every available player (including “appropriately experienced Under-21 players”) and every unavailable player (whether through injury, illness, a positive COVID test, self-isolation or whatever), and provide supporting medical present evidence ) - but they are no more than a framework for the League to make decisions. Even before you go into that a player's fitness is subjective in many cases ("Sven is coming back after two weeks...can he play?") like illness ("Mohamed has a cold...do we want him walking around in the rain?") and that doctors' letters are written by club employees, which means that assessments are made (particularly when it comes to determining whether a club has enough players and enough time to properly prepare for a game). . Let's say Club X has 30 players, including academy players, that could be selected. Three have long-term injuries. OK, that's 13 players. Good, you can play. This lack of transparency only promotes distrust and conspiracy theories.

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Real Madrid beat Athletic 2-0 to win the Spanish Super Cup

MADRID (AP) - Real Madrid will not go without a title for a second consecutive season. After failing to lift a trophy under Zinedine Zidane last season, Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid clinched the Spanish Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. (Author: Gardener)

the Spanish Super CupMADRID (AP) - Real Madrid will not go without a title for a second consecutive season. After failing to lift a trophy under Zinedine Zidane last season, Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid clinched the Spanish Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. Luka Modric and Karim Benzema scored in each half of the final as Madrid easily defeated the holders and cemented their status as the best team in Spain this season. Madrid have already beaten Barcelona twice – including in the semi-finals of the Super Cup – and Atlético Madrid once and are more than 15 points ahead of both rivals at the halfway point in the Spanish league season. Ancelotti has also guided Madrid to the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Madrid went without a trophy for the first time in more than a decade under Zidane last season. Madrid's 12th Super Cup title puts the club just behind Barcelona, ​​the most successful team in the competition. Athletic was aiming for their fourth Supercup trophy. It was Madrid's second Supercup title since the competition moved to Saudi Arabia in 2020. It had won the first edition of the tournament in the Middle Eastern country by beating Atlético in the final. The Super Cup returned to Spain in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Spanish Football Federation has had to defend itself against criticism from human rights groups over its decision to play in Saudi Arabia, worth €30 million ($34 million) a year, until 2029. Athletic were aiming for their second consecutive title after beating Barcelona in last year's final. It beat Atlético in this year's semifinals in the revised "Final Four" format. Benzema further extended the lead by converting a penalty in the 51st minute after a handball detected via video review. Athletic had a chance to get closer in the final minutes but Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saved Raúl García's penalty with his left foot. Madrid defender Éder Militão was sent off for the handball that led to the penalty. "We could have gotten back into the game but Courtois ended our chances with that save," said Athletic defender Óscar de Marcos. Madrid's triumph gave veteran Brazilian defender Marcelo a record-breaking 23rd title with the club since joining Paco Gento in 2006. That put him ahead of former centre-back Sergio Ramos, who now plays for Paris Saint-Germain. It's Marcelo's fifth Spanish Supercup title. He came on as a substitute in the 86th and lifted the trophy as team captain. Madrid were without defender Dani Carvajal due to a positive coronavirus test. Sergio Canales scored in the 73rd as Real Betis beat Sevilla 2-1 in a Copa del Rey game that continued a day after a Sevilla player was hit in the head by a piece of PVC thrown from the stands thrown by Betis at the Benito Villamarín Stadium. Marcos André scored a minute into the game as Valencia beat Atlético Baleares 1-0 to advance to the Copa del Rey quarter-finals. Atlético was the last third division team still in the competition. In Sunday's only Spanish league game, Elche defeated Villarreal 1-0 at home through a 78th-minute goal from Lucas Boyé to win their third straight game in all competitions.

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Ancelotti's Real Madrid show their dominance in Spain

MADRID (AP) -- Luka Modric had just picked up his MVP trophy after the Spanish Super Cup final when Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti started yelling at him from afar. "You missed a pass," Ancelotti complained, waving his arms as Modric approached. (Author: Gardener)

Real MadridMADRID (AP) -- Luka Modric had just picked up his MVP trophy after the Spanish Super Cup final when Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti started yelling at him from afar. "You missed a pass," Ancelotti complained, waving his arms as Modric approached. The missed pass feels like the only thing that went wrong for Madrid this season. After another solid performance from Modric and his team-mates on Sunday, Madrid easily defeated Athletic Bilbao 2-0 in the Supercup final in Saudi Arabia, cementing their status as Spain's hottest side. "It's always important to win the first title of the season," said Modric. "But there's a lot more to fight for in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish league and the Champions League. This title will motivate us even more for the future.” After not winning a trophy for the first time in more than a decade last season, things have taken a turn for the Spanish powerhouse with Ancelotti replacing Zinedine Zidane. The veteran coach quickly got the team back on track, mixing experience and youth to make them more competitive than they were a year ago. Ancelotti's Madrid often didn't pay too much attention to possession and thrived on counterattacks, doing the most damage. That was the case both times this season - in the Spanish league at the Camp Nou and last week in the semi-finals of the Super Cup. Madrid also picked up league victories over Atlético Madrid and Sevilla, their closest rivals, five points behind with a game in hand. Atlético and Barcelona are more than 15 points behind Madrid by half-time. Ancelotti's side have the best attack in the league with 45 goals in 21 games - 12 more than any other side. It also has one of the best defenses with 18 goals conceded, showing a balance that wasn't always there at the end of Zidane's stint. Ancelotti has often switched between formations and said he prides himself on how players have been able to adapt to different circumstances. That's the strength of this team," said Ancelotti. "I enjoy watching the team play. Madrid are in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey and in the last 16 of the Champions League, the competition he won with Madrid in 2014 in his first stint with the club. The team's next match will be on Thursday in Elche in the Copa del Rey. Elche will play again in the league on Sunday. Madrid will face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16 in February.

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Should we crown Man City champions after beating Chelsea?

It would take something seismic to prevent Man City from winning the Premier League again. PLUS: Real Madrid's latest trophy and more suffering for Man United. (Author: Gardener)

Man CityIt was another fun weekend in European football as Real Madrid lifted a trophy (the Spanish Supercopa) and Manchester City were almost out of the race for the Premier League title... Elsewhere, Bayern Munich and PSG were battling for victory , Liverpool scored three goals Brentford (but struggled without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane) and Man United lost even more points. We also saw Inter Milan finally drop points in Serie A as Atalanta held them to a 0-0 draw. - ESPN+ Viewer's Guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more | Real Madrid can't relax | Man United loses more points | Atalanta, Inter draw | Bayern dig deep | Liverpool trouble minus Mane, Salah | Juve's Dybala dissatisfied | PSG make it | Why has Spurs Arsenal been postponed? Chelsea's trip to the Etihad on Saturday was likely their last chance to reopen the title race. Instead, the 1-0 defeat is 13 points behind with 16 games to go. It's not just the gap either; It's the way City feels like they have other gears to switch to when needed. Romelu Lukaku had Chelsea's best chance early in the second half and squandered it, but even if he had beaten Ederson there was a feeling City would not have been concerned. Even half-chances turn into bigger chances with the talent in the team: look at Kevin De Bruyne's goal. Tuchel bemoaned the fact that his forwards struggled to hold the ball and release pressure. That's true, but (and we've been saying this all season) it's hard to build chemistry and game patterns when the front three have changed all season. In midfield, 20/20 on hindsight, some might have said Jorginho would have been better against City's press but of course that would have meant either N'Golo Kante giving you the best chance of winning back the ball or missing out on Mateo Kovacic, who was in excellent form and offers drive and diligence in midfield. That didn't happen against City. When clubs gamble away big league leads, it's usually because the pursuers get hot and something goes wrong at the top. It's hard to see Chelsea heating up anytime soon, but it's even harder to imagine what could go wrong at City other than maybe something dramatic and off the pitch. Of course injuries can happen but the thing about this group is that it's really hard to figure out whose absence would seriously derail the team. After all, this is a team that went months without Kevin De Bruyne, their most gifted and highest-paid player, and apparently didn't realize it. And this is a team that dropped Ruben Dias, who was invaluable last season, for Chelsea and Lukaku's visit. I messed around with Julien Laurens and Nedum Onuoha on the Gab and Juls show and we kind of agreed that Rodri, Joao Cancelo and Ederson are the hardest to replace simply because of the gap between them and their substitutes. But even then, with the latter two, it's not that the replacement is totally inadequate, rather you'd lose some of the added value they bring. Cancelo certainly brings another dimension, but it's not like you'd play significantly differently if Oleksandr Zinchenko were in his place. Steffen might make less exceptional saves than Ederson and isn't as good with his feet, but it's not a big change. Perhaps Rodri has been the biggest influence for a long time, mainly because Father Time seems to have caught up with Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, while he may be a better footballer, doesn't have the same physical presence. Real Madrid's win over Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final was as sweeping as it gets. They controlled the game and dominated possession (so much for those who deride them as mere counterattacks) and probably should have scored more goals than the two they sacked. And while they weren't under serious threat unless Thibaut Courtois conjures up that kick save before Raul Garcia's penalty (awarded by VAR for Eder Militao's handball), you're looking at an Alamo mess from a finish where anything can happen. Details, to be sure, and probably not enough to spoil their run to LaLiga glory, but against a different opponent (of the kind they'll face in the Champions League knockout stages, no sub-par Athletic Bilbao) on another day, result may have been different. Therefore, it's safe to say that while Carlo Ancelotti is celebrating the trophy - his fifth as Real Madrid manager in his two spells - he could use it as an instructive moment. The games last 90 minutes and it feels a bit dour to say you lost two points because you were stuck on a tie, especially when your opponents scored twice as much xG as you. But you get what Ralf Rangnick means when he says he feels like his Manchester United side have lost two points to Aston Villa. They were 2-0 up, they were playing some of the best football they've played since he arrived - I'll let others speculate how much, if anything, that had to do with Harry Maguire and Jadon Sancho being on the bench and Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford in the stands - and then they conceded twice in the last 15 minutes. Philippe Coutinho's return to the Premier League is a good story and his move no doubt helped Aston Villa, but United have managed poorly in the final 20 minutes, both defensively and offensively: their only shot over that span came deep in stoppage time from Donny van de Beek . There's more - a lot more - for Rangnick to fix here, although the first hour or so is also a sign of what they can do. When asked about Anthony Martial's absence, he said the French striker "didn't want to be in the squad" (possibly because he's hoping for a January move). Martial hit back on social media, saying that was not true and that he would "never turn down playing" or "disrespect fans". Obviously both things can't be true. Either one of the two is going a little Pinocchio here, or there's some kind of massive misunderstanding going on. Anyway, it doesn't look good and something Rangnick could very easily have avoided: a very simple "I felt we had enough options that I didn't pick him" would have sufficed. Inter Milan manager Simone Inzaghi did not address the media after his side's goalless draw with Atalanta - he screamed so much his voice was too hoarse - but it would have been interesting to hear what he was really thinking and if he was a glass half is -full or half-empty type. Happy Inzaghi would have pointed out that Inter matched Atalanta in intensity and physicality, created plenty of chances (Juan Musso made some big saves in Atalanta's goal) and the draw means they took a point from one of their toughest away games ever they ever had left (the other two are Juventus and Napoli). Grumpy Inzaghi would have pointed out that they haven't scored after 39 straight Serie A games, that their winning streak is over after eight games, that Edin Dzeko has squandered a multitude of chances, that Atalanta was too weak and that Samir Handanovic had to make a brilliant save to keep the result. We've seen Inter be crushed by gross overreactions in the past and as long as Grumpy Inzaghi stays away, that won't happen here. Inter aren't quite at the point where they can only beat themselves - Milan are also strong in the Serie A title race - but they can certainly contribute to their downfall. Nowadays a point at Atalanta is a good result for any team. The headline from Bayern's 4-0 win over Cologne is, of course, Robert Lewandowski's hat-trick and the fact that he now has 300 Bundesliga goals. The all-time record, held by the legendary late Gerd Müller, is 365. At 33, Lewandowski is strong and it's not unthinkable that he can reach Müller's mark. A little under the radar - possibly because Cologne were so bad - was the fact that Bayern went on the pitch without five real starters. Marcel Sabitzer found himself at left-back and Marc Roca played alongside Corentin Tolisso (who scored a great goal) in midfield. Don't be fooled by Liverpool's 3-0 win over Brentford on Sunday, or the slamming xG (StatsBomb had it at 3.05 to .52) or the 69 percent possession or 27 shots on six: that was everything else as a simple victory for Jürgen Klopp's men. Until Fabinho's goal – relieved by a fiendish set-piece defense – just before half-time, there was a feeling the visitors might be in for a nasty surprise. And the third goal was a gift from Brentford. That didn't look like a Klopp Liverpool side, possibly because the front three felt so different. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are in the Africa Cup of Nations and Roberto Firmino made his first league appearance since October. All of this resulted in a loss of chemistry (and quality) and reminds you how finely tuned a machine Liverpool is. Still, three points count the most in these circumstances. City are looking far away but if Liverpool win their game in hand and then face the Etihad (big question I know) then we're talking five points which is basically two losses. It may seem unlikely that City will drop many more points, but hey, if you're Klopp you have to keep believing. A few years ago, when he was the next big thing, many thought we would see the kind of performance that Paulo Dybala puts in against Udinese almost every week. He created a beautiful goal, set up Weston McKennie in a 2-0 win over Udinese and was man of the match. And he ended up giving the Juventus bigwigs in the stands a long, cold, hard look - the kind you couldn't help but notice. Dybala, who will become a free agent in June, is unhappy with his contract situation. His agents thought they had a verbal agreement on a new contract until 2026, which would pay him €8m net plus a further €2m net in "simple bonuses" which would be converted into a base salary after two seasons. For those who like to think in pounds a week, Premier League style, that's just over £300,000 a week. It's a huge amount of money - again, for context, there are only six players in the Premier League (where clubs are much healthier financially than Juve at the moment) who earn more than that - and as I wrote the other day, not a shrewd use of it from Juve's resources. Juventus obviously think the same way as they announced they would review the situation in February. He has started less than half of Juve's league games over the past three and a half seasons. But even if he had been outstanding, smart clubs pay for what they think a player will achieve in the future, not for what he's done in the past and there's no reason for anyone to believe Dybala to should be one of the highest paid players in the world between now and 2026. See where you stand and find out how to best use your resources. As I've already hinted at, maybe it's the huge lead that's causing the lack of urgency in this PSG side, or maybe it's the absence of Lionel Messi and Neymar. Anyway, it happened again at home against Brest, a PSG side should be dealt with with ease. They didn't go under but had to rely on two big saves from Gianluigi Donnarumma to save their goal before Kylian Mbappe put them ahead after half an hour. Thilo Kehrer added a second early after the break and they could have had more by the end, but those slow starts feel like they're becoming endemic. Indeed, PSG have somehow managed to drop points in four of their last six Ligue 1 games and yet their lead in the table has shrunk by just one point from 12 to 11. You get a shock before visiting from Nothing good is brewing for Real Madrid in the Champions League in four weeks... Tottenham were far from happy that the North London derby was postponed, as you can read in this succinct statement. The problem with this is that there is far too much we (and Tottenham) don't know to form an opinion other than that the Premier League's lack of clarity is unhelpful and simply encourages more suspicion. When it comes to shifts, you can either have fixed rules - X number of players available - or you can use a "common sense/case-by-case" philosophy. The Premier League rolls with the second (rightly so, I think). They have policies: they must account for every available player (including “appropriately experienced Under-21 players”) and every unavailable player (whether through injury, illness, a positive COVID test, self-isolation or whatever), and provide supporting medical present evidence ) - but they are no more than a framework for the League to make decisions. Even before you go into that a player's fitness is subjective in many cases ("Sven is coming back after two weeks...can he play?") like illness ("Mohamed has a cold...do we want him walking around in the rain?") and that doctors' letters are written by club employees, which means that assessments are made (particularly when it comes to determining whether a club has enough players and enough time to properly prepare for a game). . Let's say Club X has 30 players, including academy players, that could be selected. Three have long-term injuries. OK, that's 13 players. Good, you can play. This lack of transparency only promotes distrust and conspiracy theories.

Read

Ancelotti's Real Madrid show their dominance in Spain

MADRID (AP) -- Luka Modric had just picked up his MVP trophy after the Spanish Super Cup final when Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti started yelling at him from afar. "You missed a pass," Ancelotti complained, waving his arms as Modric approached. (Author: Gardener)

Real MadridMADRID (AP) -- Luka Modric had just picked up his MVP trophy after the Spanish Super Cup final when Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti started yelling at him from afar. "You missed a pass," Ancelotti complained, waving his arms as Modric approached. The missed pass feels like the only thing that went wrong for Madrid this season. After another solid performance from Modric and his team-mates on Sunday, Madrid easily defeated Athletic Bilbao 2-0 in the Supercup final in Saudi Arabia, cementing their status as Spain's hottest side. "It's always important to win the first title of the season," said Modric. "But there's a lot more to fight for in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish league and the Champions League. This title will motivate us even more for the future.” After not winning a trophy for the first time in more than a decade last season, things have taken a turn for the Spanish powerhouse with Ancelotti replacing Zinedine Zidane. The veteran coach quickly got the team back on track, mixing experience and youth to make them more competitive than they were a year ago. Ancelotti's Madrid often didn't pay too much attention to possession and thrived on counterattacks, doing the most damage. That was the case both times this season - in the Spanish league at the Camp Nou and last week in the semi-finals of the Super Cup. Madrid also picked up league victories over Atlético Madrid and Sevilla, their closest rivals, five points behind with a game in hand. Atlético and Barcelona are more than 15 points behind Madrid by half-time. Ancelotti's side have the best attack in the league with 45 goals in 21 games - 12 more than any other side. It also has one of the best defenses with 18 goals conceded, showing a balance that wasn't always there at the end of Zidane's stint. Ancelotti has often switched between formations and said he prides himself on how players have been able to adapt to different circumstances. That's the strength of this team," said Ancelotti. "I enjoy watching the team play. Madrid are in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey and in the last 16 of the Champions League, the competition he won with Madrid in 2014 in his first stint with the club. The team's next match will be on Thursday in Elche in the Copa del Rey. Elche will play again in the league on Sunday. Madrid will face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League round of 16 in February.

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