Madrid can clinch Spanish title ahead of Man City showdown

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti watches from the bench ahead of the Champions League semi-final, first leg soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England on Tuesday 26 April 2022. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti watches from the bench ahead of the Champions League semi-final, first leg soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England on Tuesday 26 April 2022. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

PA

Carlo Ancelotti has a decision to make when Espanyol arrive in town on Saturday.

The Real Madrid manager can face his best players for the best chance of winning the Spanish league title, or he can focus on the Champions League semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday.

Madrid need just one point from their remaining five matches to claim a record 35th league title. Ancelotti will therefore be tempted to give his reserves a chance to shine while reducing the risk of premature injury to a key player.

The seemingly easy-going Ancelotti should know better than anyone which pick is best. After all, the 62-year-old Italian is set to become the only manager to win titles in all five major leagues in Europe. 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 reverse their 4-3 loss at City when Pep Guardiola and his players travel to Madrid, Ancelotti will be one win away from a fourth European Cup title.

Villarreal, the other Spanish Champions League semi-finalists, play at Alavés on Saturday. With Villarreal in seventh place, manager Unai Emery will likely rest his best players before hosting Liverpool on Tuesday trailing 2-0 after the first leg.

Ancelotti’s recipe for success this season has been to stick with his best players and maintain a very short rotation. But with the title so close and City looming, this weekend looks like the perfect time to let 36-year-old Luka Modric and 34-year-old Karim Benzema take a break.

Benzema is enjoying a Ballon d’Or caliber season. The French striker has scored 41 goals in 41 games in total. He leads the Spanish league with 25 goals and scored eight goals in the Champions League round of 16, including two at City on Tuesday. When he hasn’t been on the pitch, Madrid have struggled. The team’s only setback in the league in 2022 was a 4-0 loss to Barcelona when Benzema was injured.

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 haven’t won in Madrid since April 1996. Even if Espanyol manage to pull off an upset, Madrid would still have four games to clinch the title ahead of Barcelona and Sevilla.

Espanyol have lost all six league games they have played on the road this year and suffered a disappointing 1-0 home defeat to Rayo Vallecano last week.

Espanyol midfielder Yangel Herrera, however, says his side can pull off the upset and postpone Madrid’s celebrations.

“We’re going to compete against Real Madrid to the fullest. We’ve already beaten 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 and change the feeling we left in the last game. We have a great opportunity, a great venue to play in, and we want to compete and have fun.”

Madrid have been playing like a champion in waiting for several weeks after their closest rivals self-destructed.

Barcelona had a glimmer of hope after their rout at the Santiago Bernabéu last month, only to be hampered by home defeats to Cadiz and Rayo Vallecano. Add a loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League and Barcelona have 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 they finish in the top four and a place in the Champions League to avoid another blow to the club’s reputation and poor finances. Atlético Madrid are two points off fourth place, but Real Betis and Real Sociedad are within reach.

Barcelona’s first objective on Sunday when they host Mallorca will be to win back their disgruntled fans, who booed the team after last weekend’s loss to Rayo.

Sevilla, who host Cadiz on Friday, had the most realistic shot at giving Madrid a title shot as they entered the second half of the season, but suffered a slump which shattered their chances.

Atlético travel to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and must maintain a four-point gap on new Copa del Rey champions Betis.

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