Real Madrid gets in position to end title drought in Spain
ABS-CBN Sports on Dec 20, 2016 07:30 PM
Real Madrid's head coach Zinedine Zidane is tossed into the air in celebration after his team won the final against Kashima Antlers at the FIFA Club World Cup soccer tournament in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)
TALES AZZONI, AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — It's been nearly a decade since Real Madrid was this dominant heading into the halfway point of the season.
Not even in 2012, when it last won the Spanish league title.
With Cristiano Ronaldo at his best and Zinedine Zidane flourishing in his first full season as a head coach, Madrid looks closer than ever to ending its title drought in the league.
Madrid also had the lead after 16 matches in 2014-15, when it had also won the Champions League and the Club World Cup. That team eventually collapsed under coach Carlos Ancelotti and ended the season in disappointment.
"We all know what happened in 2014 after we won the Club World Cup. It can happen at any moment," said Zidane, who had been an assistant to Ancelotti. "I think that the season will be long and difficult for us. If we work hard I don't think that things will change."
With two more games without a loss, Madrid will match Barcelona's Spanish record of 39 games unbeaten, a mark set last season.
After struggles by defending champion Barcelona and city rival Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid has a three-point lead going into the break. It also has a game in hand — at home against Valencia — because of its participation in the Club World Cup.
Madrid, the only unbeaten team in the league, has been nearly perfect except for a spell of three consecutive draws beginning in September. It won seven of its last eight league games since then, with the only setback a 1-1 draw against Barcelona at Camp Nou when Sergio Ramos scored a 90th-minute equalizer.
Second-place Barcelona has already lost twice, including at home to promoted Alaves. The Catalan club drew three straight — including twice at home — before finishing with two consecutive victories.
Atletico, enduring its worse slump since coach Diego Simeone took over, is only sixth, nine points behind Madrid.
PICK OF THE PLAYERS
Cristiano Ronaldo enjoyed a remarkable year but had an up-and-down start in the league thanks in part to a knee injury that kept him from playing in the first few games.
Lionel Messi also missed some matches because of an injury, but has been thriving recently and finished the year as the league's leading scorer with 12 goals, along with Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez.
On loan from Manchester City, Samir Nasri has been crucial in Sevilla's third-place campaign, while Pablo Piatti's first season with Espanyol has been highly successful with five goals and six assists, the most in the league.
Iago Aspas' outstanding season with Celta Vigo helped him land a spot in Spain's national team for the first time in his career.
He is one of the tournament's leading scorers with 10 goals, three of them scored in the last three matches before the break. He has succeeded despite a Celta team that has been struggling and is only 13th in the standings.
The 29-year-old Aspas, who had a stint with Liverpool in 2013-14, returned to Celta a season ago after a year on loan with Sevilla.
Real Sociedad started the league with a 3-0 home loss to Real Madrid and had only one victory in its first four games.
It all improved quickly, though, and the team led by Brazilian striker Willian Jose heads into the break in fifth place, ahead of Atletico Madrid and just behind Sevilla and Villarreal.
A two-time champion in the early 1980s, Real Sociedad had an emphatic 2-0 win over Atletico and drew Barcelona 1-1 in a game in which it deserved to win.
POINTS TO PROVE
Coach Diego Simeone needs to put Atletico Madrid back on track quickly if he wants the team to contend for another league title.
After experimenting with different formations, the team struggled with inconsistency and has already conceded 14 goals, only four less than the 18 it conceded in all 38 games last season. Among its four losses — which is two less than it had last season — was a 3-0 setback against Madrid at home.
Former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli also has to turn things around at Valencia, which is winless in seven league games and has won only twice under his command.
In Barcelona, Neymar hasn't scored in nine official matches, his worst slump since coming to Spain.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni