Friday, February 22, 2019 05:03:25 AM
AP, Madrid :
Barcelona has almost ended Real Madrid's defense of its Spanish league title, and there's still half a season to go.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez left Madrid staring at a 14-point deficit after leading Barcelona to a 3-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
Madrid has a game in hand, but the gap already looks too big as La Liga approaches its midway point.
"It is a loss that hurts," Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. "It is a very, very difficult match for us. But this is not over. It might look like it, but we can never give up."
Barcelona increased its lead to nine points over second-place Atletico Madrid, which lost at Espanyol on Friday. Valencia's 1-0 loss to Villarreal at home on Saturday left it 11 points back.
Suarez struck in the 54th minute and Messi added a penalty 10 minutes later after Madrid's Dani Carvajal received a direct red for stopping a goal-bound header by Paulinho.
Messi also set up substitute Aleix Vidal to round off the commanding win in stoppage time.
Despite the standings, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde and his players aren't excluding a Madrid comeback.
"We took another step forward in the league but I don't rule out Madrid," Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "This is a long-distance race."
But Barcelona is undoubtedly performing like a champion-in-waiting.
It extended its unbeaten streak to 25 matches across all competitions since losing to Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup in August, when Barcelona was reeling from the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain.
That all seemed light years away on Saturday with Barcelona resisting an early push by the hosts before imposing its will.
The match was a contrast in tempos: Madrid wanted a frantic, up-and-down shootout, with Cristiano Ronaldo having space to roam, while Barcelona wanted to hold the ball and let Messi pick his moments.
Ronaldo beat Messi for the Ballon d'Or this month but the Portuguese failed to make a decisive impact on Saturday as Messi took his clasico record to 25 goals in 37 matches and his season-leading tally to 15 in the league.
Zidane left Spain midfielder Francisco "Isco" Alarcon on the bench in a surprise move. Instead, he gave Mateo Kovacic his first league start of the season, hoping to repeat his success from the Spanish Super Cup where the Croatian was charged with man-marking Messi.
After Barcelona shook off Madrid's early intense pressure, helped by the more physical Kovacic, the Catalan club made Madrid look clueless.
Zidane defended his choice after the stinging loss.
"I am here to take decisions ... nothing is going to change what I think," Zidane said.
Ronaldo had an early goal disallowed for offside, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen got his foot on Ronaldo's strike to turn it past the post, and Karim Benzema headed off the post in the 42nd.
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