While Barcelona struggles, Real Madrid nears its peak
Real Madrid's Toni Kroos celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the Champions League round of 16, first leg, soccer match between Real Madrid and Napoli at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Wednesday Feb. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
TALES AZZONI, AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — While Barcelona reels, Real Madrid keeps getting better.
A day after the Spanish rival was demoralized by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Madrid produced one of its best performances of the season in a victory over Napoli to move closer to its seventh straight appearance in the quarterfinals.
There was more good news for Madrid on Thursday, as Gareth Bale practiced with the rest of the team and will be ready to make his return to the lineup this weekend after a long injury layoff.
It means the "BBC" trio of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo will be reunited after nearly three months, just in time for the decisive stages of the season.
The forwards will likely be playing together when Madrid hosts Espanyol in the Spanish league on Saturday, when it will have a chance to increase its lead over Barcelona and stay on track for its first league title since 2012.
"We are all very happy," Benzema said after scoring in the 3-1 come-from-behind win over Napoli at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Wednesday. "Now we have to keep this momentum in the league."
Madrid, defending its Champions League title, conceded an early goal but recovered quickly to comfortably earn the victory ahead of the second leg in Italy.
"We put in a great performance, possibly our best," Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.
Benzema's resurgence also meant good news for Zidane and Madrid, as the French striker had been criticized for lackluster performances and a scoring drought that lasted six games. With the goal against Napoli, Benzema became the top French scorer in the Champions League with 51, one more than Thierry Henry.
"That's important for my confidence," he said.
Madrid has already won two titles this season, the European Super Cup, in a final against Sevilla, and the Club World Cup in Japan. It has a one-point lead over Barcelona in the Spanish league, but with two games in hand, at Valencia and at Celta Vigo.
Madrid was eliminated by Celta Vigo in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.
Barcelona is playing the Copa final against Sevilla on May 27 at Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon Stadium. It already beat Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup final.
Winning its sixth Champions League title will be a longshot after the resounding 4-0 loss to PSG in France on Tuesday, a result the prompted criticism of coach Luis Enrique and put in doubt his future at the club.
"We are a team that has showed in past seasons that we know how to come up with good performances," Luis Enrique said after taking the blame for the debacle in Paris, one of the worst in the club's recent history. "We will have a small chance, but it's still a chance."
Barcelona hosts promoted Leganes on Sunday in the Spanish league, a competition it has won the last two seasons.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni