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Madrid nears league title with ‘clasico’ victory over Barcelona

MADRID (AP) — With a late strike by Jude Bellingham, Real Madrid took a huge step toward winning the Spanish league.

Bellingham, who quickly became one of Madrid’s most important players after his transfer last year, likely sealed the title on Sunday by scoring a stoppage-time winner in a 3-2 victory over Barcelona in the final “clasico” of the season.

Barcelona twice took the lead at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium but Madrid rallied to win for a comfortable 11-point cushion over its second-place rival entering the final six rounds.

Bellingham scored the winning goal from a difficult angle one minute into stoppage time with a left-foot strike into the top of the net after a cross toward the far post by Lucas Vázquez, who also scored and set up a goal by Vinícius Júnior.

“He hadn’t scored in a while but scored a goal that could be crucial for us winning the Spanish league,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said of the 20-year-old midfielder.

Bellingham hadn’t found the net in his last six appearances for Madrid in all competitions. The England international had scored both goals for Madrid when it won 2-1 at Barcelona in the first league clasico of the season.

It was the third straight win for Madrid over Barcelona this season. Madrid is unbeaten in 26 league games, since losing at Atletico Madrid in September.

“The title is a lot closer now. It was a vital match, we had to win it, and we did it,” Ancelotti said. “It was an even game, against a strong opponent that was doing all it could to get back into the title race again.”

The clasico came four days after Madrid eliminated Manchester City on penalties in England to advance to the Champions League semifinals. Barcelona had been eliminated a day earlier by Paris Saint-Germain after a loss at home, leaving the league as the Catalan team’s only title opportunity for the season.

Goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, the hero for Madrid in the shootout against City, miscalculated a cross into the area in Barcelona’s first goal and failed to fully clear a ball in front of the goal in the second.

Barcelona, the defending league champion, came to the Spanish capital looking to revive its title chances and took an early lead with a header by Andreas Christensen six minutes into the match.

The hosts equalised with Vinícius converting an 18th-minute penalty kick before Barcelona went ahead again with Fermín López’s goal from close range in the 69th. Vázquez, who was fouled after a run inside the area to prompt the penalty converted by Vinícius, evened the match again after a cross by the Brazil forward in the 73rd.

Vázquez was one of the changes made to the squad by Ancelotti after the match against City. He also used Luka Modric alongside Toni Kroos in midfield, and Aurélien Tchouaméni in the defence.

Barcelona loudly complained about the penalty awarded to Madrid and wanted one for itself after a challenge on López in the second half. It also complained over a potential goal in the first half when it wasn’t clear if the ball crossed the goal line before Lunin batted it away. It took several moments before video review determined that it was not a goal.

Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández, likely making his last clasico appearance after saying he will leave the club at the end of the season, said his team played better and deserved to win.

“I said yesterday that I hoped the referee wouldn’t make any mistake and that he would go unnoticed, but none of that happened,” Xavi said. “It’s a shame. It was not a fair result. Everyone saw it”

Xavi said Barcelona would not give up on the league just yet but recognized that it was all-but-over and that Madrid had to be congratulated for its campaign.

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie De Jong left the field on a stretcher late in the first half after hurting his right leg in a clash with Madrid midfielder Federico Valverde.

The match marked the debut of the new state-of-the-art 360-degree video scoreboard at the renovated Bernabeu.

Among those in attendance at the Bernabeu were tennis great Novak Djokovic, former NFL star Tom Brady and actor Andy Garcia.

Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham celebrates after scoring his side’s third goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday. PHOTO: AP

Atletico struggles

Atletico Madrid followed up its Champions League elimination with a 2-0 loss at Alaves in the Spanish league, missing a chance to strengthen its hold on fourth place.

The defeat against 13th-place Alaves kept Atletico only three points ahead of fifth-place Athletic Bilbao in the fight for a Champions League spot next season. Athletic had been held to a 1-1 draw against relegation-threatened Granada at home on Friday.

Atletico failed to advance in the Champions League after losing to Borussia Dortmund 5-4 on aggregate following a 4-2 loss in Germany on Tuesday.

Alaves, which had lost three league matches in a row, won with goals by Carlos Benavídez in the 15th minute and Luis Rioja in second-half stoppage time.

In other results, sixth-place Real Sociedad was held 1-1 at midtable Getafe, while ninth-place Villarreal won 2-1 at last-place Almeria.

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