Unfamiliar homes offer Barca and Madrid fresh challenge

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in action with Real Madrid’s Casemiro during their March 1 La Liga match at Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 09 June 2020

Unfamiliar homes offer Barca and Madrid fresh challenge

  • Frenzied title race between the league top two takes another step into the unknown

MADRID: “I’ve missed this place,” Lionel Messi said after stepping onto the Camp Nou grass for the first time in three months but when Barcelona return to action he knows it will not be the same.

Instead, La Liga’s frenzied title race will take another step into the unknown as Barca run out into the biggest and now emptiest stadium in Europe after Real Madrid switch to a different home altogether.

Two points separate Spain’s greatest rivals ahead of the return to top-flight games on Thursday, when the derby between Sevilla and Real Betis will end a 93-day hiatus and launch a five-week sprint to the finish.

When games were suspended on March 12, Madrid had handed first place back to Barcelona, just after beating them at the Santiago Bernabeu, a seemingly significant shift in momentum that lasted exactly a week.

Given the many frailties of the two teams, few could predict who will emerge the stronger from the final 11 games of the season but a fresh factor will be who adapts better to strange surroundings.

Instead of their 81,000-capacity stadium in the city-center, under renovation this summer, Real Madrid will play at the 6,000-seater Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, usually the home of the club’s reserve and under-18 teams, at their training ground in the northern suburbs.

Barcelona, meanwhile, will trade the advantage of Europe’s largest home crowd for the challenge of its most empty arena, where the absence of fans will, in numerical terms at least, feel starker than anywhere else.

“It’s the first time we have to play games without the fans,” said Madrid’s Toni Kroos earlier this month. “The team that adjusts best to this situation is the one that will win.”

For Barca, it will not be the first time.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto, Jordi Alba and Marc-Andre ter Stegen all played against Las Palmas in October 2017, when the club closed its doors at Camp Nou in protest against the game going ahead amid political unrest.

They won 3-0 but while that was a one-off, this time there are five home games to navigate, including Atletico Madrid, who would be more easily overcome with the help of a crowd.

Leganes and Espanyol, sitting 19th and 20th respectively, may feel emboldened too.

“I love that connection with the fans, it’s what allows us to feel those moments of happiness, to live them,” said Barca’s Arturo Vidal. “But we will have to adapt.”

On Saturday, the team held their first full training session at Camp Nou in almost seven years and Real Madrid have been trying to acclimatize too, with Zinedine Zidane overseeing regular meetings at their new ground.

The pitch replicates exactly the 105 x 60-meter measurements of the Bernabeu while the club’s groundsman, Paul Burgess, has been moved over to work on the surface.

But innovations are needed, with the club having to improve the lighting for broadcasting, add advertising boards and install the technology for VAR.

For Zidane, the setting is familiar because he led Madrid’s reserve side, Castilla, for 28 games there before taking charge of the first team. He even made his last appearance there in a Real Madrid shirt, to open the stadium in 2006.

Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Vinicius Junior, Lucas Vazquez and Rodrygo all came through the ranks playing on the Alfredo di Stefano grass.

Yet six home games against Eibar, Valencia, Mallorca, Getafe, Alaves and Villarreal offer no guarantees and, unlike Barcelona’s opponents, those teams will not even feel a historic anxiety.

For them, the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium might feel more like a neutral venue.

“Personally, I would prefer to play at the Bernabeu,” said Ramos.

If home advantage is less certain, Barcelona could suffer most. They have collected the most home points so far in the division and nine more than Real Madrid.

But if they find away points are easier to collect, Barcelona have more room for improvement than Real. The unknowns make an erratic title race even more unpredictable.

Lakers roll in Game 1 of NBA finals, top Heat 116-98

Updated 01 October 2020

Lakers roll in Game 1 of NBA finals, top Heat 116-98

  • LeBron James has become the seventh player to appear in 50 NBA Finals games

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida: LeBron James finally got an easy Game 1 in the NBA Finals.
A very easy one, at that.
Anthony Davis scored 34 points in his finals debut, James had 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists and the Los Angeles Lakers rolled past the Miami Heat 116-98 on Wednesday night.
The Heat left beaten and battered.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 13 points, Danny Green had 11 and Alex Caruso finished with 10 for the Lakers. They returned to the finals for the first time in a decade and sent a very clear message. James’ teams had been 1-8 in Game 1 of past finals, with losses in each of the last seven openers.
Not this one.
“We kind of picked it up on both ends of the floor,” Davis said.
Jimmy Butler fought through a twisted left ankle to score 23 points for Miami. The Heat lost point guard Goran Dragic at halftime to a left foot injury and saw All-Star center Bam Adebayo leave in the third quarter after apparently aggravating a left shoulder problem.
Kendrick Nunn scored 18 points for the Heat, Tyler Herro had 14 and Jae Crowder 12. Adebayo was held to eight points in 21 minutes, and Miami went with subs for a fourth-quarter burst that turned a total rout into something only slightly more palatable in terms of final margin.
Game 2 is Friday night.
The Lakers did whatever they wanted. They outrebounded Miami 54-36, led by as many as 32 points, and made 15 3-pointers — a big number for a team that doesn’t necessarily count on piling up that many points from beyond the arc. They’re 21-3 this season when making at least 14 3s.

Miami Heat's Jae Crowder, right, tries to grab the loose ball as Los Angeles Lakers' Dwight Howard (39) rolls on the floor during the first half of Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals on Sept. 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The only stretch that provided hope for Miami came in the first six minutes. The Heat scored on six consecutive possessions in what became a 13-0 run to take a 23-10 lead midway through the opening period.
So, the first six minutes were fine for Miami.
Everything else was all Lakers.
The simplest way to sum up what happened over the rest of the opening half is this: Lakers 55, Heat 25. The Lakers came into Game 1 ranked 21st out of the 22 teams that spent time in the bubble from 3-point range, making only 33.6% of their tries from deep at Disney. They were the only team in the postseason to have two games shooting less than 25% on 3s.
Perhaps they were due. The Lakers went 9-for-11 on 3’s in the final 16 minutes of the first half. Of the nine Lakers who played in the first two quarters, eight tried a 3-pointer — and all eight made at least one.
They closed the first quarter on a 19-3 run. Herro banked in a 3 from a sharp angle for a 43-41 Miami lead with 7:33 left in the half, and then the Lakers took off again, this time on a 24-5 burst to go into the break with a 65-48 lead.
And if things weren’t already bad enough for Miami, the Heat determined at the half that Dragic — playing in his first finals game — couldn’t keep going in Game 1 because of a left foot injury.
The Lakers started the third on another run, this one 18-3, and the rout was officially underway.

Heat: Butler turned his left ankle in the final seconds of the first half, remained in the game and started the second half. ... It was the 19th time that Miami lost a game this season after leading by double digits at some point.
Lakers: The Lakers improved to 17-15 in Game 1s of title series. ... Davis was 10 for 10 from the foul line, plus added nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks.

The NBA Finals record book is basically a James scrapbook of career achievements, and he raised his spot on some of those lists Wednesday. He became the seventh player to appear in 50 NBA Finals games (he could climb all the way to a tie for third on that list if this series goes seven games) and passed Michael Jordan and George Mikan for fifth in finals free throws made.

The Heat fell to 1-5 in Game 1 of title series. All three of Miami’s championships have come after dropping the opener.