Rodrygo keeps Madrid clear of Barca, Girona boost European dream

Rodrygo fired La Liga leaders Real Madrid to a 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao with a superb brace on Sunday to restore their eight-point advantage on Barcelona.

Earlier Cristhian Stuani’s last-gasp strike earned Girona an entertaining 3-2 win over Real Betis, keeping the minnows on track for Champions League qualification.

After champions Barca, second, beat Las Palmas on Saturday to put pressure on Carlo Ancelotti’s side, Los Blancos responded with a solid showing at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Without suspended Brazil forward Vinicius Junior, his compatriot Rodrygo made the difference with two superb strikes against an Athletic with one eye on next weekend’s Copa del Rey final against Mallorca.

Los Leones coach Ernesto Valverde rested goalkeeper Unai Simon and defender Dani Vivian, along with Nico Williams, who had a minor muscular issue.

Defeat leaves fifth place Atletico Madrid able to rise above Athletic in fourth on Monday when they visit Villarreal.

Madrid, whose next match is Manchester City’s visit on April 9 in the Champions League quarter-finals, enjoyed a comfortable night thanks to Rodrygo.

“He played very well, he made the difference, he was able to score early, he has a lot of quality in his moves, it’s what he has to do,” Ancelotti told reporters.

Ancelotti said he was not concerned that Rodrygo, who had only netted once in his last 13 matches across all competitions, was inconsistent in front of goal.

“There are very isolated cases of forwards who score all the time, like (Karim) Benzema or Cristiano (Ronaldo),” continued the Italian.

“With experience Rodrygo will improve in that aspect, he’s still young and plays with a lot of intensity, and sometimes because of that youth I ask him to do a lot of work, so that’s why sometimes he’s not as fresh in front of goal.”

‘Joy and happiness’

Rodrygo broke the deadlock after just seven minutes with a strike from just outside the area, beyond the reach of Julen Agirrezabala and into the top corner.

Diaz crashed a shot against the post as Madrid sought a second goal to kill the game in the second half.

Rodrygo netted his and Madrid’s second after 73 minutes at the end of a slick move, ghosting inside Vivian and finishing at the near post.

La Liga’s joint top scorer Jude Bellingham, making his return after a two-match suspension for dissent, had a quiet night — quite literally at one point.

In complaining about a foul not called in his favour late on he acted out zipping his mouth shut, a reference to his recent punishment.

Eder Militao’s appearance in the final stages after a long-term knee injury he suffered against Athletic in August marked the end of a good night’s work for Madrid.

“I feel a lot of joy and happiness, hearing the fans when I went out to warm up is a joy that I can’t describe,” Militao told Real Madrid TV.

Their only concern was Fede Valverde limping off, but Ancelotti said it was not serious.

‘Historic year’

Michel Sanchez’s Girona had fallen badly out of form after running Madrid close in the title race for most of the season, but Stuani’s late goal earned them an important win.

Two David Lopez errors gifted Betis forward Willian Jose two goals to twice equalise goals from Girona forward Artem Dovbyk but veteran Uruguayan forward Stuani had the final say.

Girona, third, lead fourth place Athletic Bilbao by nine points, and are 10 behind Madrid and two off Barca.

“Until (qualification) is mathematically sealed, we’ll keep working and preparing for matches as if they were the last,” Stuani told DAZN.

“We’re on a good path, living through a historic year and let’s finish it in the best way we can.”

The hosts went ahead when Chadi Riad handled Dovbyk’s header and the Ukrainian netted the resulting penalty, before Jose lobbed home the equaliser.

Girona edged back in front with a good move finished by Dovbyk for his 16th goal, putting him level with Bellingham and Mallorca’s Ante Budimir as La Liga’s top scorer.

Betis were soon level after Lopez’s poor attempt at a clearance allowed Jose to strike, but Stuani pounced acrobatically in stoppage time to help Girona take their European dream one step closer to reality.

It would be a remarkable achievement for a club only in the top flight for the fourth season in their history.

 

© Agence France-Presse

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Dylan Johnson