BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Carlo Ancelotti has a decision to make when Espanyol comes to town on Saturday.
The Real Madrid coach can play his top players to have the best chance of wrapping up the Spanish league title, or he can focus on the Champions League semifinal decider against Manchester City on Wednesday.
Madrid needs only one point from its remaining five matches to win a record-extending 35th league title, so Ancelotti will be tempted to give his reserves a chance to shine while reducing the risk for an untimely injury to a key player.
The apparently easy-going Ancelotti should know better than anyone which choice is best. After all, the 62-year-old Italian is on the brink of becoming the only coach to win titles in Europe’s five major leagues. He guided AC Milan to the 2004 Serie A title, Chelsea to the 2010 Premier League title, Paris Saint-Germain to the 2013 French title and Bayern Munich to the 2017 Bundesliga title.
And if Madrid can turn around its 4-3 loss at City when Pep Guardiola and his players visit Madrid, Ancelotti will be one victory from a fourth European Cup title.
Villarreal, Spain’s other Champions League semifinalist, plays at Alavés on Saturday. With Villarreal in seventh place, coach Unai Emery will likely rest his top players ahead of hosting Liverpool on Tuesday trailing 2-0 after the first leg.
Ancelotti’s recipe for success this season has been sticking with his best players and maintaining a very short rotation. But with the title so close and City looming, this weekend looks like a perfect time to let 36-year-old Luka Modric and 34-year-old Karim Benzema take a break.
Benzema is having a Ballon d’Or-caliber season. The France striker has 41 goals in 41 games overall. He leads the Spanish league with 25 goals, and has scored eight goals in the Champions League knockout rounds, including two at City on Tuesday. When he has not been on the field, Madrid has struggled. The team's only league setback in 2022 was a 4-0 loss to Barcelona when Benzema was out with an injury.
But Ancelotti could leave him on the bench and start one of his reserves — a group that includes the much maligned Gareth Bale.
Espanyol beat Madrid 2-1 at home in October. But the Barcelona-based club hasn’t won at Madrid since April 1996. Even if Espanyol manages to pull off an upset, Madrid would still have four more games to clinch the title ahead of Barcelona and Sevilla.
Espanyol has lost all six league games it has played on the road this year and endured a disappointing 1-0 loss at home against Rayo Vallecano last week.
Espanyol midfielder Yangel Herrera, however, said his team can pull off the surprise and postpone Madrid’s celebrations.
“We are going to compete to the fullest against Real Madrid. We already beat them in the first game against them this season, and we have to go out there and enjoy this game,” Herrera said. “We want to give the fans something to be happy about, and change the feeling that we left in the last game. We have a beautiful opportunity, a beautiful venue to play in, and we want to compete and enjoy ourselves."
Madrid has been playing like a champion-in-waiting for several weeks after its closest rivals self-destructed.
Barcelona had a glimmer of hope after its rout at the Santiago Bernabéu last month, only for it to be embarrassed in home losses against Cádiz and Rayo Vallecano. Add a loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League and Barcelona has lost three in a row in all competitions in the same season for the first time ever at Camp Nou.
Now the team coached by Xavi Hernández must ensure it locks up a top-four finish and a Champions League berth to avoid another blow to the club’s reputation and its poor finances. Atlético Madrid is two points behind in fourth place, but Real Betis and Real Sociedad are within striking distance.
Barcelona’s first goal on Sunday when it hosts Mallorca will be to win back its disgruntled fans, who booed the team after last weekend’s loss to Rayo.
Sevilla, which hosts Cádiz on Friday, had the most realistic shot to give Madrid a run for the title entering the second half of the season but hit a slump that wrecked its chances.
Atlético visits Athletic Bilbao on Saturday needing to maintain the four-point gap over Betis, the newly crowned Copa del Rey champion.
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press