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Barcelona Rallies To Top Madrid, Move Closer To League Title

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MADRID, March 20 (AP): Closer than ever to the title, Barcelona finished the last Spanish league “clasico” of the season by celebrating on the field at Camp Nou. Real Madrid was left complaining about the refereeing after seeing its chances of retaining the title all but end.

Barcelona took a major step toward winning its first league title since 2019 after coming from behind to beat Madrid 2-1 on Sunday, with Franck Kessié scoring in stoppage time to give the Catalan club the home victory and a 12-point lead over second-place Madrid with 12 matches to go.

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Barcelona’s players huddled and celebrated in front of its jubilant fans after the final whistle.

Barcelona was saved by the VAR for the second consecutive game, as Madrid had a potential go-ahead goal by Marco Asensio called back in the 81st minute because of offside. Last week, it edged Athletic Bilbao when an 87th-minute equalizer by Athletic forward Iñaki Williams was disallowed by video review.

“We are still not sure that it was an offside,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said about Asensio’s goal. “It didn’t look to be 100% an offside. We will go back to Madrid with that doubt.”

Barcelona coach Xavi disagreed.

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“It was clearly offside, I’m surprised by Ancelotti’s comments,” he said. “It’s either offside or it isn’t. There is no debate. The result was fair.”

Barcelona went into the match still facing criticism over its payments of several millions of dollars over several years to the former vice president of the country’s refereeing committee. Prosecutors have formally accused Barcelona of alleged corruption, fraudulent management and falsification of documentation. Madrid is among the clubs siding against Barcelona in the legal proceedings, as is the Spanish government, the league and the soccer federation. Barcelona has consistently denied any wrongdoing or conflict of interest, saying it paid for technical reports on referees but never tried to influence their decisions in games.

Madrid needed a win to give itself a realistic chance of catching Barcelona and defending its title.

“We’ll keep fighting,” Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said. “But we have to be honest, it’s a four-game advantage. It’s not impossible but its going to be difficult.”

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Barcelona won eight league titles in 11 seasons through 2019. It finished second to Madrid in 2020, then third — behind Madrid and champion Atletico Madrid — in 2021, and second to Madrid again last season without Lionel Messi. It is seeking its 27th league title, which would leave it eight behind Madrid.

Barcelona was in control for much of the match on Sunday, creating most of the significant chances.

But the visitors opened the scoring in the ninth minute with a fortunate own-goal by Barcelona defender Ronald Araujo, who redirected the ball into the net with a header after a cross by Madrid forward Vinícius Júnior from the left side of the area.

Sergi Roberto equalized after picking up a loose ball inside the area in the 45th, and Kessié netted the winner from the middle of the box after a late breakaway as Madrid made a final push for the victory.

Madrid thought it had gone ahead when Asensio found the net from near the penalty spot after a pass by Dani Carvajal, but video review determined the goal couldn’t count because of offside in a tight call.

It was the second match between the rivals in less than three weeks. Barcelona won 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium on March 3 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. The return leg at Camp Nou is on April 5.

Madrid won the first league “clasico” 3-1 at the Bernabéu.

Barcelona was without playmaker Pedri and forward Ousmane Dembélé because of injuries, while Madrid’s only absence was defender David Alaba, also because of an injury.

Barcelona players wore the logo of international singer Rosalía instead of Spotify’s brand as part of its strategic agreement with the music streaming service. Rosalía was selected as she celebrates the one-year release of her hit album “Motomami.”

OTHER RESULTS

Takefusa Kubo scored as Real Sociedad beat last-place Elche 2-0 to end its winless streak and regain sole possession of fourth place.

Ander Barrenetxea also scored in the second half for Sociedad, which hadn’t won in six games in all competitions, including four straight in the league. It was coming off elimination against Roma in the Europa League on Thursday.

The win gave the Basque Country club a three-point gap over fifth-place Real Betis in the fight for the Champions League places.

Playmaker David Silva led Sociedad over Elche, which has won only two of its last 11 league games. It sits 14 points from safety.

Betis ended its four-game winless streak in all competitions with Borja Iglesias scoring a second-half goal in a 1-0 victory over midtable Mallorca at home. Betis had been eliminated by Manchester United in the Europa League.

Villarreal, another Spanish club that failed to advance in European competition after losing to Anderlecht, rebounded in the Spanish league with a 3-0 win at Osasuna.

Villarreal stayed in sixth place, four points behind Betis and seven from Sociedad.

Getafe left the relegation zone with a 2-0 home win over Sevilla, which stayed two points from the danger area. Sevilla has won only one of its last five league games, but was the only Spanish team to advance in the Europa League after eliminating Fenerbahce on Thursday.

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