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Benzema and Felix shine as Real Madrid and Atletico get set for Champions League tests


Madrid (AFP) – Karim Benzema and Joao Felix ensured Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid claimed morale-boosting victories in La Liga on Saturday before facing the Premier League’s heavyweights next week in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Benzema missed one penalty but scored two as Real Madrid defeated Celta Vigo 2-1 to get back to winning ways ahead of Wednesday’s crunch meeting with Chelsea.

And Atletico Madrid sailed past Alaves 4-1 before their trip to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Tuesday, the in-form Felix scoring twice, with Luis Suarez adding a brace of his own after coming on as a substitute.

Felix now has seven goals in his last eight games for Atletico and the 22-year-old is likely to be key if Diego Simeone’s men are to spring a surprise against City and reach the semi-finals.

Madrid’s victory at Balaidos will calm any nerves in La Liga’s title race too, allowing the leaders to draw a line under their thrashing at the hands of a resurgent Barcelona before the international break.

And, despite an imperfect performance, the win should restore confidence ahead of the first leg away at Chelsea, with Thomas Tuchel’s side now recovering from a humiliation of their own, after they were earlier thumped 4-1 at home by Brentford.

Chelsea, who outplayed Real Madrid over two semi-final legs last year, will be a much sterner test than Celta and Carlo Ancelotti’s side will almost certainly not have the benefit of being awarded three penalties at Stamford Bridge.

Thibaut Courtois was also called upon again to make some excellent saves to deny Celta a draw.

“I think we deserved more today but Courtois is the best goalkeeper out there,” said Celta captain Iago Aspas. 

“I don’t know if we deserved to win, I had to make two big saves in the first half,” said Courtois.

“But winning is important. Chelsea lost today at home so they will want to come back strong on Wednesday. We have to give more. We lacked a bit of intensity today and we can’t do that because that’s one of Chelsea’s strengths. We have to be aggressive.”

Real Madrid’s chances against Chelsea are improved immeasurably by the recovery of Benzema, and also Ferland Mendy, who offers so much more solidity at left back than either Nacho Fernandez or Marcelo.

Benzema marked his return from injury with a brace that takes his goal tally for the season to 39.

Any hopes Barcelona had of causing a collapse may already have been dashed, with Real Madrid now 12 points ahead of Sevilla and 15 in front of the Catalans, who have two games in hand, the first of them against Sevilla on Sunday. 

– Fighting for second –

Barca and Sevilla are most likely now fighting it out for second. Atletico climb to third.

Ancelotti’s positive test for Covid-19 last week meant he was unable to take his place on the sideline and it remains to be seen if the Italian is able to make the trip to London.

Madrid found the breakthrough in the 19th minute when Eder Militao had his right foot taken away from him by Nolito. Benzema rolled it right. Matias Dituro dived left.

But Celta were undeterred and shorty after half-time, they pulled level. Toni Kroos and Casemiro were bypassed too easily in midfield and Aspas spread left to Javier Galan, whose pass into the box allowed Nolito an easy finish.

Madrid were awarded a second penalty after Rodrygo made sure he tumbled over the planted left leg of Jeison Murillo. Benzema stepped up again but this time shot left, Dituro jumping the same way and making the block with his right elbow.

The contest was in the balance, with Madrid straining to reassert their advantage. Celta could barely believe it when, in the 70th minute, Gonzalez blew again for a third spot-kick, penalising Kevin Vazquez for obstructing Mendy, despite the Celta defender doing his best to get out of the way.

If Dituro had dived left for a third time he might have saved but he went right, Benzema left, and Madrid held on for the win.

Felix headed Atletico into an early lead at the Wanda Metropolitano and while Alaves equalised through Gonzalo Escalante just after the hour, three late goals sealed a comfortable home win.

Suarez converted a penalty won by Matheus Cunha before Felix added his second, smashing in the rebound after setting up Cunha. Suarez prodded in a fourth in injury-time.

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