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Monday, April 23, 2012

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Up close and personal: Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo heads the ball in front of Barca's Alexis Sanchez during their match at the Nou Camp on Saturday. Madrid won 2-1. AFP-JIJI

Ronaldo puts Madrid on cusp of league title


BARCELONA, Spain — Cristiano Ronaldo's late goal dealt Barcelona its first loss in 55 home games and put Real Madrid on the cusp of breaking the Catalan giants' three-year hold on the Spanish League crown with a record-setting 2-1 win on Saturday.

Sami Khedira opened with Madrid's league-record 108th goal of the season and Ronaldo sealed the deserved victory with his own league-record 42nd goal moments after Alexis Sanchez leveled for Barcelona.

Madrid's 19th league game without a loss lifted it seven points clear of Barcelona at the top of the standings with just four rounds to go.

"This was a crucial step forward, now we have to finish it off," Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso said. "We barely suffered. We controlled the game to perfection."

After managing only a single win in nine previous games against Barcelona since joining Madrid, coach Jose Mourinho finally guided his team to a long-coveted victory over its fierce rivals on their ground.

It was Madrid's first victory at the Nou Camp since 2007 and Mourinho's first career win here in 10 visits with three different teams.

The game was hyped as a duel between Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Madrid's Ronaldo, but this time the Portugal forward came out on top and moved one goal ahead of his Argentine rival in their personal duel to determine who is the top all-time scorer in a single Spanish League season.

With the score suddenly even and the crowd roaring for a comeback, Ronaldo showed once again that Madrid is one of the best counterattacking sides in Europe when he used his pace to race free and his aim to beat goalkeeper Victor Valdes with little angle from the right flank to seal the win that practically wraps up the title race.

"Those of us who work with (Ronaldo) every day are not surprised at him coming through in the key moments," said Madrid assistant coach Aitor Karanka, who spoke in place of Mourinho. "For me, he is the best player in the world."

Despite needing only a draw, Mourinho deployed a balanced starting 11 — the same that lost 1-0 at Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals midweek — with his sole defensive-minded concession being Fabio Coentrao getting the nod over Marcelo at right back.

Guardiola, however, made two changes to the side that fell 1-0 at Chelsea in the Champions League with young winger Cristian Tello and Thiago Alcantara starting in place of Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas.

But just like at Stamford Bridge, Barcelona was frustrated again and again in attack and proved porous in defense when in mattered.

"We played the game we wanted to play. We had our chances, but it is never easy against a team of this level," said Guardiola, who has to quickly pick his team up for the second leg of its semifinal against Chelsea on Tuesday.

"We're not going to retain the league title, and now we have to focus on the Champions League. It won't be simple, we have to find the way to attack Chelsea, and we have to try and forget today's game."

If Barcelona rebounds and Madrid can do likewise against Bayern Munich on Wednesday, the two will meet for a seventh "clasico" of the season in the European final.

Newcastle closes gap


LONDON — Newcastle capitalized on a stalemate between Arsenal and Chelsea to maintain its surge toward qualification for next season's Champions League, easing past Stoke 3-0 to claim a sixth straight victory and climb into the English Premier League's top four on Saturday.

"That is a big, big achievement by us, make no mistake," said Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, whose team was tipped by many pundits to struggle this season.

Tottenham continued its freefall by dropping a place to fifth following a 1-0 loss at relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers, which left Harry Redknapp's team three points outside the Champions League positions.

Chelsea rode its luck to escape with a 0-0 draw at Arsenal.

The battle against relegation took another twist thanks to Blackburn's 2-0 win over Norwich that lifted Steve Kean's team above Bolton, which fell to next to last with a 1-1 draw against Swansea.

Fifth-bottom Wigan's stunning recent run, which included wins over league leader Manchester United and Arsenal, came to an end with a 2-1 loss to Fulham, while Aston Villa drew 0-0 with Sunderland in the other match.

With Arsenal following up its shock 2-1 home loss to Wigan on Monday by failing to impress against Chelsea, the race for the final two Champions League spots is wide open.

Arsenal has played a game more than all of its rivals and is in danger of being caught by Newcastle, which is the form team in the division.

Bolton, which rallied for a point on Saturday thanks to Chris Eagles' equalizer, is still stuck in the relegation zone, a point behind Blackburn but with games in hand on all its rivals at the bottom.

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