Real Madrid hosts Barcelona eyeing decisive blow in Spanish league title race

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Real Madrid faces one last stumbling block in its waltz toward the Spanish league title.

Barcelona, its chief rival, is coming to town on Sunday.

Madrid is eight points ahead of Barcelona going into the clasico, so anything other than a road win for the Catalan club would leave the Liga leader with a more-than-comfortable cushion with just six more games remaining.

“If we manage to win it, we’ll be within touching distance of La Liga title,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said on Saturday.

Madrid will play four days after it eliminated Manchester City on penalties to advance to the Champions League semifinals. Following that 120-minute extra-time game, Madrid's Jude Bellingham said he was “dead on my feet” after his team hung on against City and forced a shootout.

But Ancelotti said his players, while needing some extra rest in the meantime, will be ready for “a hard-fought and evenly matched clasico.”

“It’s a great opportunity to move closer to the La Liga title but we know how difficult it will be because Barcelona are still very much in it.”

Madrid has beaten Barcelona in their two previous meetings this season.

Bellingham, the team’s leading scorer with 20, netted twice to lead Madrid to a 2-1 comeback win at Barcelona in October. Vinícius Júnior struck a hat trick to down Barcelona 4-1 in the Spanish Super Cup final in Saudi Arabia in January.

Madrid’s only league loss was in September when it fell at Atletico Madrid. Since then it has gone 25 games without a defeat in the league.

For Barcelona, the league reigning champion, a win at Madrid would be the only way to at least keep the league competitive. Xavi Hernández’s side was dumped from the Champions League by Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.

“Tomorrow, we have a chance to get back in the Spanish league title race. It is now our most important game of the season,” Xavi said. “We must win to put pressure on them. If you win, you are within five points.”

The game will be the last clasico for Xavi, if he keeps the pledge he made in January to renounce the final year of his contract come this summer.

Beating Madrid would help relieve the burn of having lost to PSG after Barcelona was in control of the tie until Ronald Araújo earned a direct red card early in the second leg. PSG romped against 10-man Barcelona and won 4-1 to go through 6-4 on aggregate.

“We must turn the page quickly and make it so the anger, the frustration and feeling of impotence from the other day (against PSG) work in our favor,” Xavi said. “We are facing a Real Madrid side that is strong and with its morale sky high after (its win) in the Champions League.”

Barcelona’s teenage standouts Lamine Yamal (16) and Pau Cubarsí (17) will get their first chance to play against Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. The forward and defender have been by far the best things going for Barcelona this season.

MADRID PARKING THE BUS

The victory over City became another instant Champions League classic for Madrid, even though the 14-time European Cup winner has rarely, if ever, played so defensively and with such paltry possession and scoring chances.

Ancelotti, however, said he had no problem with his star-packed side digging into the area, if it gets a win.

“Sometimes there are games where you won’t have it and you have to defend for 90 minutes. I still haven’t come across a single upset fan. Quite the opposite, they’re delighted because the team put a real shift in,” he said.

“I’d play two goalkeepers if I could, and that’s only because I can’t bring the bus out.”

___

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press