Real Madrid get their first chance to clinch Spanish league title

Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 15 July 2020

Real Madrid get their first chance to clinch Spanish league title

  • Madrid need two points from their last two matches to secure their 34th league title

MADRID: The Spanish league trophy will be sitting by the field at the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium on Thursday, with Real Madrid a win away from lifting it for the first time in three years.

Madrid will have their first chance to clinch the title when they host  Villarreal at the Di Stéfano following a long season that was in jeopardy because of the coronavirus pandemic. They enter  the second-to-last round with a four-point lead over Barcelona, which face Osasuna at the Camp Nou at the same time.

Madrid need  two points from their last two matches to secure their 34th league title — and first since 2017. They can also lift the trophy with a loss if Barcelona fail  to defeat Osasuna.

It would be Madrid’s first league title since Cristiano Ronaldo left to join Juventus two seasons ago, and the first since coach Zinedine Zidane returned from a short break.

Barcelona won the last two league titles and were at the top this season when the coronavirus pandemic struck, but Madrid has been perfect since the break, winning nine straight.

“When we returned from the confinement after being stuck at home for almost three months, I could see that the players wanted to achieve something big,” Zidane said Wednesday. “I could see it during the training sessions, I could see it in how they were practicing.”

Madrid had lost three of their last four matches before the league was interrupted in March.

Barcelona seemed in control but endured an up-and-down run after the break, drawing three matches and losing their advantage at the top. Coach Quique Setién, under pressure because of the team’s results and lackluster performances, knows his club faces a tough task trying to overcome Madrid’s advantage.

“It’s not over yet, anything can happen,” said Setién, who took over from Ernesto Valverde in January. “But it will be very difficult for us. You need a loss from a team that has won everything. We will keep fighting until the end.”

Barcelona have won eight of the last 11 league titles, with Madrid lifting the trophy in 2017 and 2012.

Madrid will face a Villarreal team  sitting fifth in the standings and fighting for a Europa League berth. They had one of the best runs following the coronavirus break, winning six of its nine matches.

“It will be one of our most difficult matches,” Zidane said. “It's a very tough rival, a very good team.”

Barcelona's opponent, Osasuna, are in 11th place.

Time catches up with Ronaldo and Juventus in quest for Champions League

Updated 08 August 2020

Time catches up with Ronaldo and Juventus in quest for Champions League

  • Coming into the Champions League round-of-16 match against Lyon a goal down from the first leg, Juventus were still widely expected to turn the tie around

DUBAI: Never write off Cristiano Ronaldo.

Across a single match, a season or his entire career, doubt him and he will make you regret it. 

On Friday, the 35-year-old almost pulled off his favorite trick once again.

Coming into the Champions League round-of-16 match against Lyon a goal down from the first leg, Juventus were still widely expected to turn the tie around in Turin.

But things didn’t go according to plan, with the French side’s early lead meaning  Juventus needed three goals to progress.

Cue the Cristiano Ronaldo show. After all, this was the Champions League, a competition that at times over the last decade seemed to exist solely for his benefit.

He has played in 18 of its 27 seasons, scored a record 130 goals — 67 in the knockout stages — and is the only man to score in three finals. Oh, and won the competition a record five times, once with Manchester United and an astonishing four times in five years with Real Madrid. There are many other minor records.

If you can remember Europe’s top competition without Ronaldo, chances are you are approaching your 30s, and can recall a world without smartphones and social media, and one in which his current club coach, Zinedine Zidane, reigned as the world’s best footballer.

It is the near certainty of success Ronaldo brings that convinced Juventus to buy him in the summer of 2018. Winning Serie A again was practically a given, but it was the Champions League that chairman Andrea Agnelli craved most, having failed to win the competition since beating Ajax on penalties in 1996.

After two seasons of trying, it’s fair to say that project has failed. On Friday night, time seemed to have caught up with player and club.

Except it was not the Portuguese legend who had let Juventus down. It was the other way round.

In an absorbing match shaped by two questionable penalty decisions, and even without hitting the heights of his greatest years, Ronaldo remained his team’s greatest hope. He won and scored a penalty, missed two headers, set up several chances for his teammates and scored a quite extraordinary goal to bring the Italian champions to within one goal of progressing to the quarterfinals

There was a sense of inevitability about proceedings. We have seen Ronaldo do this time and again during his career. Especially with Real Madrid. 

And what could be more Ronaldo than scoring yet another hat-trick to rescue a seemingly impossible situation yet again?

Even in his short time with the Old Lady, he had shown his unique ability to deliver in the biggest of games. Last season, most people had written off Juventus after a 2-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, only for Ronaldo to score a hat-trick in the return at the Allianz Stadium.

Unlike previous years at Madrid, however, this escape did not inspire a glorious march to the Champions League title. In what was thought to be the easier half of the draw at the time, Juventus went on to lose to Ajax in the quarterfinal.

This season, they did not even make that far, depriving Ronaldo of the chance to play out the rest of the competition in his native Portugal. It is a failure that might now see coach Maurizio Sarri lose his job after only one season.

More worrying for Juventus supporters is that this great era, which has seen nine consecutive Serie A titles, seems to be coming to an end. 

Since the restart of a season after the coronavirus break, Juve have been poor. Luckily for Sarri’s team, challenges by Inter Milan and Lazio could not be maintained, otherwise the Turin club’s two wins from eight matches could have resulted in a truly disastrous season.

Juventus have looked a shadow of the team that has dominated Italy over the last decade and reached the Champions League final twice, losing to Leo Messi’s Barcelona in 2015 and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in 2017.

Throughout this inconsistent season, Ronaldo has been Juventus’ standout player by some distance.

Paulo Dybala has continued to suffer from injuries. The fabled defensive partnership of 35-year-old Giorgio Chiellini and 33-year-old Leonardo Bonucci is slowly being ravaged by the passage of time. And new signing Adrien Rabiot barely contributed until the closing weeks of the season. Ronaldo, on the other hand, has scored 37 goals in all competitions, breaking a Juventus record held by Ferenc Hirzer for 94 years. 

How Juventus, specifically Agnelli, react to the latest Champions League disappointment could determine whether Sarri, this squad and Ronaldo have one more shot at the biggest competition of all next season. The odds are against it.

At 35 Ronaldo looks to have lost little of his hunger and genius to step up just when he is needed. But time is running out quickly, and the chances of another Champions League triumph look much slimmer today than they did on Friday morning.

That evening, Ronaldo, as ever, did his bit. Juventus didn’t.