Mesut Ozil celebrates his goal. -Photo by AFP
MADRID: Barcelona, Real Madrid laboured to victories over Real Betis and Levante respectively on Saturday as they warmed-up for their Champions League semi-finals in midweek.
Barca’s 1-0 win moved them to within two victories of mathematically sealing the title, but without the injured Lionel Messi they struggled to break down a resolute Levante until Cesc Fabregas stroked home the winner eight minutes from time.
“It was important to win this game, despite some people wanting to make it look like the league doesn’t matter,” Fabregas told reporters.
“We know that we are working to win it and we know it is very hard work. We are going to continue fighting until the end to win it.”
Eric Abidal started for the hosts for the first time in 14 months following his liver transplant as Tito Vilanova rested a number of key players with Tuesday’s clash with Bayern Munich in mind.
However, they were denied the perfect start when Keylor Navas saved David Villa’s penalty after Pape Diop was very harshly judged to have brought down Andres Iniesta.
Barca continued to press for the remainder of the first-half but long-range efforts from Dani Alves and Villa were all that Navas had to deal with.
The pattern continued after the break and the visitors could even consider themselves very unfortunate not to have gone in front when Robert Aquafresca’s goal was wrongly ruled out for offside.
However, Barca’s pressure finally paid when Fabregas controlled substitute Alexis Sanchez’s pass inside the area and squeezed his low shot between the despairing Navas and the far post.
Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Betis earlier in the day was slightly more routine, but also came at a cost as Marcelo and Luka Modric limped off with muscular injuries and are now serious doubts for the first-leg of their Champions League semi-final with Borussia Dortmund.
After a slow opening by the hosts they went ahead just before half-time when Mesut Ozil latched onto Karim Benzema’s through ball to slot home at the near post.
Benzema then made it two in similar fashion as he took advantage of Cristiano Ronaldo’s pass to beat Betis keeper Adrian, but Jorge Molina’s penalty halved the deficit for the visitors after Ruben Castro had been brought down by Nacho.
Castro then came within inches of stealing a draw for Betis as he hit the bar two minutes from time before Ozil settled Madrid’s nerves with a third goal in stoppage time.
And afterwards Madrid defender Pepe recognised that the absence of Marcelo and Modric could be a big blow for the nine-time European champions.
“It is a shame as they are very important players for us, but we have a very big squad with great players and we always want to win,” Pepe told Canal Plus.
The Portuguese also accepted that the lack of match practice for some of those on show for Madrid had taken its toll towards the end of the game.
“After the goal they pressed a bit more and we had a lot of people that hadn’t played for a while so it is normal you notice that at the end.”
Valencia boosted their chances of clinching the fourth Champions League slot as a first-half destruction of Malaga helped them to a 5-1 win at the Mestalla.
Four goals in barely six minutes from Dani Parejo, Roberto Soldado (2) and Sergio Canales put Valencia in control before Ever Banega grabbed the fifth in the second-half after Julio Baptista had pulled one back for Malaga just before the break.
And at the bottom Granada remain just a point above the relegation zone as they could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to Valladolid.