MADRID (AP) — The three-month break caused by the coronavirus pandemic didn’t seem to adversely affect the chances of Barcelona and Real Madrid to fight for the Spanish league title.
Both teams had comfortable victories over the weekend as the league returned to action in empty stadiums. Barcelona won 4-0 at Mallorca and Madrid easily defeated Eibar 3-1 at home.
The results kept Barcelona two points ahead of Madrid with 10 rounds remaining.
“It’s going to be a fight in which we both feel that we can’t fail again,” Barcelona coach Quique Setién said Monday. “I hope the advantage we have right now will be enough to secure us the title. But there are many things that will be out of our control in this final month.”
Barcelona hosts relegation-threatened Leganés in an empty Camp Nou on Tuesday, while Madrid welcomes seventh-place Valencia on Thursday — again at its training center while the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium remains under renovation for the rest of the season.
“I don’t know to what extent (playing without fans) will affect us,” Setién said. “I would rather play with fans but that’s not possible, so we have to adapt. Soccer loses part of its essence when matches are played in empty stadiums.”
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid got a boost during the break as Luis Suárez and Eden Hazard had time to recover from injuries that were expected to keep them out for the season.
Hazard performed well in his return by setting up two goals in Madrid’s win over Eibar, while Suárez also showed good form in Barcelona’s victory.
There had been some concern about Lionel Messi’s return as well, especially after he sustained a small injury not long before the league resumed, but the playmaker scored a goal and set up two others on Saturday.
Messi is the league’s leading scorer with 20 goals and has directly contributed to 15 of the team’s last 18 goals (seven goals and eight assists). He has scored 20 or more goals for 12 straight seasons in the league.
“Messi is fine,” Setién said. “It’s not only about the goals, you have to look at how much he contributes to the team. He helps us in every game.”
Both Setién and Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane took advantage of the five substitutions available to coaches after the pandemic, and Setién said he plans to rotate the squad often to guarantee his players remain fit through the end of the season.
“There will be changes as the matches go on,” he said. “We will see how fatigue affects each player. I want us to arrive fresh at the end of the season. We’ll have to see how the players recover after each match.”
Third-place Sevilla also won in its return — 2-0 over city rival Real Betis on Thursday — but it remains nine points behind Madrid. It can temporarily cut the difference to six points when it visits midtable Levante on Monday.
Fourth-place Real Sociedad, fifth-place Getafe and sixth-place Atlético Madrid all failed to win this weekend. Atlético, the usual challenger to Barcelona and Madrid, was held to a 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao for its third straight draw in the league. It next visits Osasuna on Wednesday.
“It’s always harder when you don’t win,” Atlético coach Diego Simeone said. “We have to find a way to overcome this. It will be difficult until the end.”
The Spanish league is scheduled to end on July 19.
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