Madrid clinches record-extending 35th Spanish league title

MADRID (AP) — In a dominating season for Real Madrid, it was fitting that it didn’t even need its best players to win the Spanish league.

Using its backups before the Champions League semifinals, Madrid earned a record-extending 35th Liga title with a comfortable 4-0 home win over Espanyol on Saturday.

Players and coaches celebrated with the crowd at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium long after the match ended, then paraded to the team’s usual party spot at Cibeles plaza, but there was not a lot of time to rejoice. On Wednesday, Madrid is back at the Bernabéu to host Manchester City in the second leg of the Champions League semifinals. Madrid lost 4-3 in the first match in England.

“We know we have an important match ahead of us, but today we have to celebrate,” said Brazilian veteran Marcelo, who reached a milestone with his 24th career title with Madrid, the most in the club’s history.

“We have to enjoy it, this could help us on Wednesday,” said Carlo Ancelotti, who became the first coach to win the top five European leagues.

The Italian manager won with AC Milan in Serie A, Chelsea in the English Premier League, Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1, and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.

Several thousand fans packed the Cibeles plaza to welcome the champions, who mixed messages of celebration for the league title and motivation for Wednesday’s match. The crowd cheered loudly when Marcelo draped the Cibeles statue with Madrid’s flag and scarf.

Rodrygo scored twice and Marco Asensio and substitute Karim Benzema added on to give Madrid its second league title in three seasons, and third in six years.

Madrid has an insurmountable lead with four rounds to go. It was 17 points in front of Sevilla, which drew with Cádiz 1-1 on Friday, and 18 points ahead of Barcelona, which hosts Mallorca on Sunday.

“This is how you win leagues,” Madrid midfielder Casemiro said. “We’ve done a great job the entire season, being consistent from the start.”

Madrid has nine more league titles than Barcelona.

Ancelotti rested most of his regular starters against Espanyol, including Benzema and his attacking teammate Vinícius Júnior. Only goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and midfielders Casemiro and Luka Modric made the starting lineup.

Benzema, Vinícius and Toni Kroos entered the match in the second half, and Benzema closed the scoring in the 81st for his league-leading 26th goal.

Casemiro had to play improvised as a central defender because David Alaba was out injured and Nacho Fernández and Éder Militão were suspended.

Marcelo started at left back and surpassed the 23 titles won by great Francisco “Paco” Gento, who died this year at age 88. The 33-year-old Brazilian tied Gento when Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup in January, a few days before Gento’s death.

Marcelo gave the pass to countryman Rodrygo to open the scoring from near the penalty spot in the 33rd minute. Rodrygo added to the lead 10 minutes later and Marco Asensio scored the third goal in the 55th.

Tennis great Rafael Nadal gave the ceremonial kickoff at the Bernabéu, and it didn’t take long before the crowd began singing “Campeones, campeones.”

It was a well-deserved title as Madrid got off to a good start and fended off every run by its challengers. It led after all but six rounds early in the season, and was at the top since the 14th round in November.

The only question now is if Atlético Madrid will agree to give its city rival a “guard of honor” before the teams meet at Atlético’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium next Sunday.

ELSEWHERE

Defending champion Atlético Madrid lost at Athletic Bilbao 2-0 to lose ground in the tight fight for the Champions League places. Diego Simeone’s team stayed in fourth place, two points from third-placed Barcelona and four points ahead of fifth-placed Real Betis, which visits Getafe on Monday.

Atlético has won only one of its last six games in all competitions, with three losses and two draws.

Villarreal’s hopes of securing a European place next season took a hit after losing at Alavés 2-1. Alavés moved off the bottom of the table and kept alive its chance of escaping relegation.

Villarreal on Tuesday will try to reverse a 2-0 first-leg loss at Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals.

Levante dropped to last place after drawing with 10-man Valencia 1-1. Defender José Luis Gayà was sent off in the 31st minute. Valencia was coming off a loss to Real Betis in the Copa del Rey final.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

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