Madrid face Champions League qualification fight

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MADRID: There might have been two clubs toasting Athletic Bilbao signing Ibai Gomez from Alaves yesterday Athletic for one, but also Real Madrid. Few would expect the team that has won the Champions League three times in a row to be buoyed by a star player leaving Alaves, whose stadium holds just over 19,000 and who, five years ago, finished 18th in the second tier.

But currently it is Alaves who stand between Madrid and La Liga’s top four. Real missing out seems unthinkable, and for now it remains unlikely, but as their title hopes fade, priorities will adjust too. The expectation is Alaves’ remarkable form will at some point drift, particularly now Gomez has gone, his departure to a team placed 17th suggesting he too believed the surge may not last.

This, however, is where Real are now, fifth in the table, 10 points behind Barcelona, playing catch-up not just for first place but fourth. And there is a possibility the gap could widen through a run of tricky fixtures this month.

First, a trip on Sunday to Betis, who sit one place lower in sixth and have ambitions of their own to claim a European position. Then come third-placed Sevilla, eighth-placed Espanyol and Alaves. Santiago Solari would have been encouraged by the 3-0 win over Leganes in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, when Vinicius Junior, in particular, shone.

The 18-year-old’s sumptuous volley was a demonstration of the sort of youthful exuberance a struggling team can rally around. “He is taking big steps,” Solari said afterwards. “We were angry and we let loose,” added Nacho. But in La Liga, Madrid head to the Benito Villamarin on the back of a defeat against Real Sociedad and a draw with Villarreal. —Agencies

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