Momentum back with Madrid in title race as Barca become chasers

Real Madrid’s French forward Karim Benzema scores their second goal in the 2-1 victory away at Real Sociedad on Sunday, as play resumes behind closed doors. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 June 2020

Momentum back with Madrid in title race as Barca become chasers

  • Zinedine Zidane’s team were able to use a superior head-to-head record to return to the top

MADRID: Real Madrid and Barcelona may be neck-and-neck on points at the top of La Liga but the pendulum has swung back in Madrid’s favor.

Kind fixtures allowed Spain’s top two to ease into the resumption of Europe’s closest title race but a testing few days has delivered a more accurate gauge of form and fitness.

Barca stumbled at Sevilla on Friday night, a goalless draw at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan coming between impressive Madrid victories, 3-0 at home to Valencia and then 2-1 away at Real Sociedad on Sunday.

A despondent Gerard Pique said Madrid might even prove uncatchable, an assessment many believed to have been more of a jibe at referees than a compliment to his rivals.

“It’s just frustration,” said Barcelona coach Quique Setien. “I am still optimistic.”

Madrid had certainly benefited from Rodrigo Moreno’s goal for Valencia being ruled out the night before and would see three tight decisions go their way against Real Sociedad too.

But they were able to use a superior head-to-head record to return to the top of La Liga because Barcelona handed them an opportunity, which they took.

Setien’s side became labored against Sevilla and, in truth, never really made them feel uncomfortable. Neither team created enough to deserve to win the game and with Lionel Messi quiet in his third 90 minutes in 9 days, Barca lacked ideas and inspiration.

“We will keep going and will try to maintain that hope because we are convinced we can still win the league,” said Setien on Monday.

Of the tight battle with Madrid, he added: “Everything that can be said about us applies to them too. They can’t make any mistakes either. We have seen many leagues decided on the last day before.”

On Tuesday, Barcelona host Athletic Bilbao, who are undefeated since the restart, before traveling to Celta Vigo next weekend for a match that looked simpler before Celta trounced Alaves 6-0 on Sunday.

Then Barca have Atletico Madrid at home and Villarreal away, two resurgent teams, both in the hunt for the top four, before a kinder finish kicks in.

Yet they cannot afford to give Real Madrid a lead to cling onto, meaning Setien needs to find solutions despite the lack of time for training.

Antoine Griezmann has looked lost, the Frenchman giving way to Martin Braithwaite against Sevilla, in what appeared to be Setien’s favored lineup.

Frenkie de Jong is expected to miss most of the upcoming difficult period with a calf injury.

But Madrid have problems too after Sergio Ramos went off with an injured left knee against Real Sociedad while Casemiro will be suspended against Mallorca on Wednesday.

Madrid should survive against Mallorca but any extended absence for Ramos will destabilize a defense that has been the foundation of the team’s success.

“He’s the best defender in the world,” said Zinedine Zidane on Sunday.

Eden Hazard sat out Sunday’s match, perhaps rested or perhaps recovering from a knock he took to his troublesome ankle against Valencia.

This is also not the first time Madrid have appeared to snatch the momentum from Barcelona.

In March, they convincingly won the Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu only to undo their efforts by losing to Betis the following week.

They have Karim Benzema, who looks to be in the form of his life after scoring three goals in as many games, including his sensational volley against Valencia.

And they have Hazard, whose partnership with Benzema looks like the first realistic answer to the attacking void left almost two years ago by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.

If Hazard can stay fit, it could prove a title-winning combination.

“We have achieved nothing yet,” said Zidane on Sunday. “We’ve had three victories but we know the title race will go until the end. We have to keep going.”


Bucks’ Antetokounmpo named NBA MVP for second straight year

Updated 27 min 1 sec ago

Bucks’ Antetokounmpo named NBA MVP for second straight year

  • The 25-year-old became just the third player in history to earn MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season, after Michael Jordan in 1988 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994
  • The MVP award carries a bittersweet tinge after the top-seeded Bucks fell in five games to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals

LOS ANGELES: Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said Friday he’ll treasure his second straight NBA Most Valuable Player award and redouble his efforts to capture a league crown.
The 25-year-old from Greece became just the third player in history to earn MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season, after Michael Jordan in 1988 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.
“Michael Jordan, one of the best players who’s ever done it, if not the best,” Antetokounmpo said, speaking from a rooftop in Athens during the televised announcement of the award. “Hakeem, a guy that I look up to, he came from where I’m from, Nigeria, where I have roots.
“Just being in the same sentence with them, that means a lot to me.”
The player dubbed the “Greek Freak” became the 12th player to win back-to-back MVPs, joining Jordan, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
But, once again, the MVP award carries a bittersweet tinge after the top-seeded Bucks fell in five games to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals in the quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida.
Last year, Antetokounmpo won the MVP only for eventual champion Toronto to oust the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Obviously I would love to be still in the bubble playing games, fighting,” Antetokounmpo said. “But at the end of the day I won the award. I’m extremely blessed.
“It’s been a long journey,” Antetokounmpo added. “The people that know me, the people that know my story, you can never take these moments for granted.”
Antetokounmpo won in a landslide, receiving 85 first-place votes from a global panel of sports reporters and broadcasters, the league announced on Friday.
Los Angeles Lakers star James received 16 first-place votes and the third finalist, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, did not receive any first-place votes.
The voting was based on performance from the start of the season through March 11, when play was shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
It did not included the “seeding games” played when teams in contention for playoff spots once play resumed in Orlando.
Antetokounmpo averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in leading the Bucks to the best regular-season record in the pandemic-disrupted season.
But he had to watch from the sidelines as the Heat won game five of their semifinal series, nursing a sprained ankle suffered in game three and aggravated in game four.
“Obviously, I am disappointed to not be able to help our team go to the third round,” he said. “That feeling cannot take away from this award.
“I’m happy for this award, but I want more,” he said. “I want to be a champion.”
As a veteran entering his eighth season, Antetokounmpo will be eligible to receive a supermax contract extension from the Bucks.
The Bucks reportedly plan to extend that offer as soon as they can — after the 2019-20 season officially ends.
There has been widespread speculation as to whether a player of Antetokounmpo’s stature will be happy to remain in the small market of Milwaukee.
He met with Bucks owners including Marc Lasry before heading to Greece and has indicated he’d be open to staying.
Providing he’s convinced the team is determined to invest the resources to pursue a title, Antetokounmpo said Friday, “I don’t see why not to be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years.”