Madrid face Cham­pi­ons League qual­i­fi­ca­tion fight

Madrid head to the Ben­ito Vil­la­marin on the back of a defeat against Real So­ciedad and a draw with Vil­lar­real

Gulf Times Sport - - SPORT -

There might have been two clubs toast­ing Ath­letic Bil­bao sign­ing Ibai Gomez from Alaves on Thurs­day — Ath­letic for one, but also Real Madrid. Few would ex­pect the team that has won the Cham­pi­ons League three times in a row to be buoyed by a star player leav­ing Alaves, whose sta­dium holds just over 19,000 and who, five years ago, fin­ished 18th in the second tier.

But cur­rently it is Alaves who stand be­tween Madrid and La Liga’s top four. Real miss­ing out seems un­think­able, and for now it re­mains un­likely, but as their ti­tle hopes fade, pri­or­i­ties will ad­just too. The ex­pec­ta­tion is Alaves’ re­mark­able form will at some point drift, par­tic­u­larly now Gomez has gone, his de­par­ture to a team placed 17th sug­gest­ing he too be­lieved the surge may not last.

This, how­ever, is where Real are now, fifth in the ta­ble, 10 points be­hind Barcelona, playing catch-up not just for first place but fourth. And there is a pos­si­bil­ity the gap could widen through a run of tricky fix­tures this month.

First, a trip to­mor­row to Betis, who sit one place lower in sixth and have am­bi­tions of their own to claim a Euro­pean po­si­tion. Then come third­placed Sevilla, eighth-placed Es­panyol and Alaves. San­ti­ago So­lari would have been en­cour­aged by the 3-0 win over Le­ganes in the Copa del Rey on Wed­nes­day, when Vini­cius Ju­nior, in par­tic­u­lar, shone.

The 18-year-old’s sump­tu­ous vol­ley was a demon­stra­tion of the sort of youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance a strug­gling team can rally around. “He is tak­ing big steps,” So­lari said af­ter­wards. “We were an­gry and we let loose,” added Na­cho.

But in La Liga, Madrid head to the Ben­ito Vil­la­marin on the back of a defeat against Real So­ciedad and a draw with Vil­lar­real. Fewer than nine weeks on from his ap­point­ment, So­lari has already fielded ques­tions about his fu­ture and Jose Mour­inho’s avail­abil­ity adds an ex­tra layer of in­trigue.

Fall fur­ther away from the top four and those ques­tions will be­come more fre­quent. There is still plenty of time for re­cov­ery. Twelve months ago, the knives were sharp­en­ing for Zine­dine Zi­dane too after Madrid lost to Le­ganes in the Copa del Rey. Suc­cess in Europe made up for ev­ery­thing, even fin­ish­ing 17 points worse off in the league than cham­pi­ons Barcelona. The coach has changed twice since, but the team has largely re­mained, save for the de­par­ture of Cris­tiano Ronaldo and his La Liga av­er­age of 34.5 goals per sea­son.

Gareth Bale was ex­pected to step up, only for in­juries, again, to dis­rupt his rhythm. Isco has been side­lined by So­lari, fail­ing even to make it into a ro­tated line-up against Le­ganes. “The sit­u­a­tion is com­pli­cated,” said Ser­gio Ramos on Wed­nes­day.

Marcelo has been woe­fully out of sorts. Thibaut Cour­tois, Marco Asen­sio and Toni Kroos are in­jured. It will take guts, and per­haps a run in the side for Vini­cius, to spark Madrid into life, with the un­pre­dictable Betis of­fer­ing no guar­an­tees — this sea­son, they have beaten two of the top three and lost to two of the bot­tom three as well.

Mean­while, Sevilla travel to Bil­bao, where Gomez is likely to make his de­but to­mor­row, and lead­ers Barcelona host Eibar. Barca en­dured a sur­prise 2-1 defeat by Le­vante in the cup on Thurs­day but Philippe Coutinho’s late penalty leaves them in touch head­ing into the second leg at home. A muchchanged line-up that ex­cluded Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Marc An­dre ter Ste­gen means con­fi­dence is un­likely to have been knocked. Le­vante now face Atletico Madrid, who are five points be­hind the league lead­ers. For now, they are their clos­est chal­lengers.

FIX­TURES (ALL TIMES GMT)

Today: Le­ganes v Huesca (1200), Valencia v Real Val­ladolid (1515), Girona v Alaves (1730), Vil­lar­real v Getafe (1945) To­mor­row: Atletico Madrid v Le­vante (1100), Ath­letic Bil­bao v Sevilla (1515), Barcelona v Eibar (1730), Real Betis v Real Madrid (1945)

On Mon­day: Real So­ciedad v Es­panyol (2000)

(AFP)

Real Madrid are fifth in the ta­ble, 10 points be­hind lead­ers Barcelona, playing catch-up not just for first place but fourth.

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