Cruising in Europe, Real Madrid plays for pride in Spain


BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Real Madrid needed to pull off a series of comebacks to win its record-extending 14th European Cup last year. This time around, it is making it look easy.

Madrid took a big step toward reaching the Champions League’s final four on Wednesday when it convincingly beat Chelsea 2-0 in the first leg of their quarterfinal. That came after it crushed Liverpool 6-2 on aggregate in the round of 16.

The win over Frank Lampard’s side set Madrid on course for what would likely be a semifinal rematch from last season against Manchester City, which beat Bayern Munich 3-0 in their first meeting on Tuesday.

But first, Madrid will have to play a game in the Spanish league where its greatest ambition is simply a runner-up finish, with Barcelona leading the table by a full 13 points with 10 rounds remaining.

Madrid visits Cadiz on Saturday with only two points separating it from crosstown rival Atletico Madrid in third.

After falling out of contention for the league title and finishing last in its Champions League group early in the season, Atletico has suddenly become the hottest team in Spain even though it has no chance of winning a trophy. It is undefeated in 12 straight rounds and will seek a sixth straight victory when it faces Almeria on Sunday.

Finishing second or third is purely a question of honor since a top-four finish is enough to earn a Champions League berth for the coming season, but Atletico would surely savor beating out its top rival.

Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, however, will be tempted to rest some of his top players at Cadiz, including veterans Luka Modric (37), Karim Benzema (35), and Toni Kroos (33), with the trip to Stamford Bridge for Madrid’s second game against Chelsea set for Tuesday.

Madrid lost 3-2 at home to Villarreal in the last round when Ancelotti left Modric, Kroos and other first-choice players on the bench at the start, while playing Benzema for only the first hour.

After the loss, Ancelotto said his team lacked “motivation” with the league title already out of reach.

The one player who seems to never tire for Ancelotti is Vinícius Júnior. The 22-year-old Brazil forward played the full 90 minutes against both Villarreal and Chelsea. He was his team’s top performer in both games, scoring against Villarreal and contributing to the two goals against Chelsea.

Vinícius has become Madrid’s most dangerous player in attack because of what he provides in scoring (21 goals overall) and passing, as well as the panic his high-speed dribbling provokes in defenders.

The winger, who scored the only goal in Madrid’s 1-0 victory over Liverpool in last year’s European final, knows that his team has every motivation to give it their all in Europe.

“Every player who pulls on this jersey know that playing in the Champions League is special at this club, especially at the (Santiago) Bernabeu when the fans get right up for it,” he said after the win over Chelsea. “At Madrid, you have to play with that desire in the Champions League.”

Madrid will also play in the Copa del Rey final against Osasuna on May 6.

Cadiz is in 14th place, four points from the relegation zone.

ONE MORE STEP

Barcelona visits Getafe in Spain’s capital on Sunday after being held 0-0 by Girona in the last round as it closes in on its first league title since 2019.

Only a meltdown of historic proportions by Xavi Hernández’s team could give Madrid a chance to repeat as Spanish champions.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports


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