Momentum back with Madrid in title race as Barca become chasers

Real Madrid’s French forward Karim Benzema scores their second goal in the 2-1 victory away at Real Sociedad on Sunday, as play resumes behind closed doors. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 June 2020

Momentum back with Madrid in title race as Barca become chasers

  • Zinedine Zidane’s team were able to use a superior head-to-head record to return to the top

MADRID: Real Madrid and Barcelona may be neck-and-neck on points at the top of La Liga but the pendulum has swung back in Madrid’s favor.

Kind fixtures allowed Spain’s top two to ease into the resumption of Europe’s closest title race but a testing few days has delivered a more accurate gauge of form and fitness.

Barca stumbled at Sevilla on Friday night, a goalless draw at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan coming between impressive Madrid victories, 3-0 at home to Valencia and then 2-1 away at Real Sociedad on Sunday.

A despondent Gerard Pique said Madrid might even prove uncatchable, an assessment many believed to have been more of a jibe at referees than a compliment to his rivals.

“It’s just frustration,” said Barcelona coach Quique Setien. “I am still optimistic.”

Madrid had certainly benefited from Rodrigo Moreno’s goal for Valencia being ruled out the night before and would see three tight decisions go their way against Real Sociedad too.

But they were able to use a superior head-to-head record to return to the top of La Liga because Barcelona handed them an opportunity, which they took.

Setien’s side became labored against Sevilla and, in truth, never really made them feel uncomfortable. Neither team created enough to deserve to win the game and with Lionel Messi quiet in his third 90 minutes in 9 days, Barca lacked ideas and inspiration.

“We will keep going and will try to maintain that hope because we are convinced we can still win the league,” said Setien on Monday.

Of the tight battle with Madrid, he added: “Everything that can be said about us applies to them too. They can’t make any mistakes either. We have seen many leagues decided on the last day before.”

On Tuesday, Barcelona host Athletic Bilbao, who are undefeated since the restart, before traveling to Celta Vigo next weekend for a match that looked simpler before Celta trounced Alaves 6-0 on Sunday.

Then Barca have Atletico Madrid at home and Villarreal away, two resurgent teams, both in the hunt for the top four, before a kinder finish kicks in.

Yet they cannot afford to give Real Madrid a lead to cling onto, meaning Setien needs to find solutions despite the lack of time for training.

Antoine Griezmann has looked lost, the Frenchman giving way to Martin Braithwaite against Sevilla, in what appeared to be Setien’s favored lineup.

Frenkie de Jong is expected to miss most of the upcoming difficult period with a calf injury.

But Madrid have problems too after Sergio Ramos went off with an injured left knee against Real Sociedad while Casemiro will be suspended against Mallorca on Wednesday.

Madrid should survive against Mallorca but any extended absence for Ramos will destabilize a defense that has been the foundation of the team’s success.

“He’s the best defender in the world,” said Zinedine Zidane on Sunday.

Eden Hazard sat out Sunday’s match, perhaps rested or perhaps recovering from a knock he took to his troublesome ankle against Valencia.

This is also not the first time Madrid have appeared to snatch the momentum from Barcelona.

In March, they convincingly won the Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu only to undo their efforts by losing to Betis the following week.

They have Karim Benzema, who looks to be in the form of his life after scoring three goals in as many games, including his sensational volley against Valencia.

And they have Hazard, whose partnership with Benzema looks like the first realistic answer to the attacking void left almost two years ago by the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.

If Hazard can stay fit, it could prove a title-winning combination.

“We have achieved nothing yet,” said Zidane on Sunday. “We’ve had three victories but we know the title race will go until the end. We have to keep going.”


Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

Updated 16 January 2021

Saleh’s hiring by Jets source of pride for Muslim community

  • The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the US
  • The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in Detroit

NEW YORK: Robert Saleh has made history that extends far beyond any football field.
The New York Jets’ new head coach has families and community leaders excited in neighborhoods all across the country, celebrating the first known Muslim American to hold that position in the NFL.
That’s a source of great pride for a group that has been generally underrepresented in the league’s on-field leadership roles.
“It’s something that shows the growing diversity of our nation, the inclusion we’re trying to achieve at all levels of our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “And I think it’s a very positive sign.”
The 41-year-old Saleh, expected to be formally introduced next week by the Jets, is the son of Lebanese parents and grew up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest Muslim population in the United States per capita.
“I think he’s just a trailblazer for a lot of coaches who are Muslim, to let them know that they do have a chance to be a head coach,” said Lions offensive lineman Oday Aboushi, a practicing Muslim who has played in the NFL for eight seasons — including his first two with the Jets.
“He shows them you do have a chance to be a defensive coordinator, you do have a chance to grow up and have a job at the professional level,” Aboushi added. “As long as you’re professional and you’re passionate about it like he is, I think a lot of people will look to him as a trailblazer, as far as everyone feeling like they could do it themselves and it’s an attainable dream.”
After Saleh’s college playing career as a tight end at Northern Michigan ended, he got his start in coaching by working as an assistant at Michigan State, Central Michigan and Georgia before being hired as a defensive intern by the Houston Texans in 2005.
Then came stints with Seattle and Jacksonville before Saleh became San Francisco’s defensive coordinator in 2017, helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl last year with his No. 2-ranked unit. He was a popular candidate among the seven teams looking for a new coach this offseason, and quickly emerged as the favorite for the Jets job.
Saleh, known for his energy on the sideline and being well-liked by players, impressed the Jets during his first remote interview. He was flown in a few days later for an in-person meeting with Jets chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, president Hymie Elhai and general manager Joe Douglas at the team’s facility in Florham Park, New Jersey.
After a two-day visit, Saleh left to meet with Philadelphia for its coaching vacancy — but the Jets knew they found their new coach. The team announced Thursday night the sides reached an agreement in principle.
“As a pioneer in the sports world, Saleh will serve as an inspiration to many young American Muslims,” Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR’s New Jersey chapter, said in email to The Associated Press. “In addition to the positive impact that he’ll have on Muslims, Saleh’s presence in the field and on the screen will remind the rest of America that Muslims are a part of the fabric of this nation and proudly contribute to society. It’s a step toward tearing down walls and building bridges.
“Welcome to Jersey, brother!”
Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of CAIR’s New York chapter, congratulated the Jets and Saleh for what he called a “historic hiring in the National Football League.” He’s optimistic it’s a sign of increasing inclusion and recognition of the Muslim community.
“For all the Muslim youth who may be told they don’t belong or can’t do something because of how they pray, we hope that when they see Mr. Saleh on national television, they will say to themselves that anything is possible and will reach for the stars,” Mohamed said in an email to the AP. “We hope Mr. Saleh’s hiring opens the door for other American Muslims in sports.”
Saleh is believed to be the third Arab American to become a head coach in the NFL. He follows Abe Gibron, who led Chicago from 1972-74, and Rich Kotite, who coached the Eagles (1991-94) and Jets (1995-96) — both of whom also had Lebanese roots.
Saleh is also just the fourth active NFL head coach who is a minority, joining Miami’s Brian Flores, Washington’s Ron Rivera and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.
“Robert Saleh has made history on the field and off,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted Friday night. “Now he’s knocking down barriers in our own backyard. Congrats, Coach!”
While Saleh’s focus will be on restoring the Jets to respectability and not necessarily being an inspiration, he has provided a path for others to someday follow.
“Any person in a new job, their first goal is going to be performance in their job,” Hooper said. “But I think a secondary consideration might be being an example to Muslim and Arab American youth around the country, that this kind of inclusion and respect for diversity is possible.
“But I don’t think he got the job because of his ethnic or religious background. He got this job because he’s good at what he does.”