NECK-AND-NECK TI­TLE RACE

Barcelona, Real level on points at the top

New Straits Times - - Sport - ZINE­DINE ZI­DANE

BARCELONA

BARCELONA came through a test­ing lo­cal derby at Es­panyol, win­ning 3-0 to cling to their slen­der lead at the top of La Liga af­ter ri­vals Real Madrid had set the chal­lenge by beat­ing Va­len­cia 2-1 in the ear­lier kick-off.

Barca tri­umphed thanks to two clin­i­cal fin­ishes from Luis Suarez and a strike from Ivan Rakitic fol­low­ing a vin­tage slalom run by Lionel Messi.

Suarez pounced on a dis­as­trous back­pass from Jose Manuel Ju­rado to break the dead­lock in the 50th minute and Rakitic sealed the win in the 76th by side-foot­ing home Messi’s cut­back af­ter the Ar­gen­tine had torn through the home de­fence.

Suarez, who had failed to score in his pre­vi­ous five games in all com­pe­ti­tions, took ad­van­tage of an­other calami­tous er­ror by the oth­er­wise im­pres­sive Es­panyol back­line and ri­fled in Barca’s third from close range in the 87th minute.

Barca top the stand­ings on 81 points due to their su­pe­rior head-to-head record over Real, who also have 81 and have a game in hand.

Marcelo came to Real Madrid’s res­cue four min­utes af­ter his side had con­ceded a po­ten­tially cru­cial Va­len­cia equaliser, from Dani Parejo, that could have se­ri­ously dented their hopes of land­ing a first ti­tle since 2012.

Cris­tiano Ron­aldo scored his first goal in five league games to put Real ahead in the 27th minute but in the sec­ond half had a penalty saved by Diego Alves, who turned away a league-record sixth spot kick of the cam­paign.

Va­len­cia had given Real a scare when Santi Mina hit the wood­work in the open­ing minute and the vis­i­tors pulled level in the 82nd minute with a thump­ing free kick from Parejo, the for­mer Real academy player, who had fouled Luka Mo­dric for the penalty.

Marcelo promptly grabbed the win­ner, cut­ting in­side from the left-hand side of the area and curl­ing the ball un­der Alves with his right foot, as Real’s ti­tle bid ben­e­fited from yet an­other cru­cial late goal.

“I can’t ex­plain how we keep on scor­ing late goals. All I know is it’s ex­cit­ing, it’s beau­ti­ful,” Real coach Zine­dine Zid a n e t o l d r eporters.

“We weren’t click­ing at the start. We were a lit­tle anx­ious. But then we loos­ened up and started to play well. But if you don’t kill the game off, you suf­fer. To­day we had chances to close the game out and we didn’t do it. That means we can still im­prove.”

Atletico Madrid warmed up for their Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal first leg against Real by ham­mer­ing Las Pal­mas 5-0 away with two goals from Kevin Gameiro and strikes from Saul Niguez, Thomas Partey and Fer­nando Tor­res.

It was not all plain sail­ing for Diego Sime­one’s side, how­ever, as they lost Jose Gimenez to in­jury, adding to the ab­sences of fel­low de­fend­ers Juan­fran and Sime Vr­saljko for to­mor­row’s short trip to the San­ti­ago Bern­abeu.

Granada’s run of six con­sec­u­tive sea­sons in La Liga ended fol­low­ing a 2-1 de­feat at Real So­ciedad. They join base­ment club Osasuna in the Se­gunda Di­vi­sion next sea­son.

Le­vante sealed their re­turn to the top flight 11 months af­ter be­ing relegated by beat­ing Real Oviedo 1-0 at home. Reuters

I can’t ex­plain how we keep on scor­ing late goals. All I know is it’s ex­cit­ing, it’s beau­ti­ful.

AP PIC

Barcelona’s Luis Suarez cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing against Es­panyol at RCDE Sta­dium on Satur­day.

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