Real Madrid ease pressure on Zidane with rousing victory over Barcelona

Barcelona’s Argentine forward Lionel Messi challenges Real Madrid’s Brazilian midfielder Casemiro during Saturday’s Spanish League football match. (AFP)
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Updated 25 October 2020

Real Madrid ease pressure on Zidane with rousing victory over Barcelona

  • Argentinian star Lionel Messi has still to score from open play this season

BARCELONA: Real Madrid averted a crisis in the best possible way on Saturday by beating Barcelona 3-1 in the first empty Clasico, landing an early blow in La Liga’s title race.

Barca had the chance to inflict a third consecutive defeat on their rivals and increase the pressure on Zinedine Zidane.

Instead, Madrid’s win earns them a six-point lead over the Catalans, having played one game more.

Sergio Ramos’ penalty and a late Luka Modric goal finished off Barcelona after Federico Valverde and Ansu Fati had traded early strikes in a frantic game that defied those expecting further evidence of two heavyweights in decline.

Barcelona might feel hard done by, especially as Ramos’ penalty was awarded after a check by VAR and a hugely exaggerated fall by Madrid’s captain after Clement Lenglet tugged his shirt.

But aside from an impressive spell in the first half, when an inspired Lionel Messi threatened to win the game on his own, Madrid were dominant for longer spells and pulled away when it mattered.

This was Ronald Koeman’s first Clasico as Barcelona coach and some of the pressure Zidane would have felt from a loss is now transferred to the Dutchman, who has overseen only three wins from his first six games in charge.

Barcelona face Juventus on Wednesday in the Champions League, without the suspended Gerard Pique.

Every Barca setback is now seen through the lens of Messi’s future too. The Argentinian, who failed in his attempt to leave last summer, has still to score from open play this season.

Mundo Deportivo had declared the match “The least Clasico of Clasicos” on its front page on Saturday morning.

The coronavirus pandemic meant the biggest football stadium in Europe was silent for the game that La Liga president Javier Tebas had claimed is “still the biggest football match in the world.”

In the previous week, Real Madrid had lost to Shakhtar Donestsk and newly promoted Cadiz, while Barcelona were beaten by Getafe last weekend

Yet a dip in quality does not have to mean a drop in drama and any doubts about the thrill of this fixture were answered in eight minutes, as both teams had scored.

Madrid made the start they dreamed of when Karim Benzema drifted deep into the right channel and was allowed to turn, with the sprinting Valverde going beyond him.

Valverde pierced the gap before lifting a curved shot past Neto and into the far corner.

Madrid celebrated as if their confidence had been reborn, but within three minutes, Barcelona were level.

Messi, from almost left-back, chipped a ball over the top freeing Jordi Alba who fired into the front post where Fati had nipped ahead of Ramos and turned in.

It was fast and open for the rest of the half, with Messi enjoying a golden spell. He glided past Casemiro and then swerved around Ramos, but onto his right foot, the finish stabbed into Thibaut Courtois at the near post.

Benzema should have scored too. Madrid finished the stronger before half time but Barca were better after. Fati flashed just wide and Philippe Coutinho missed a free header at the back post.

Their momentum was checked by Lenglet’s error, a tug in the box clear enough that Ramos’ shirt was stretched, even if the fall was comically exaggerated. Referee Juan Martinez checked the monitor. Ramos found the corner.

Barca wanted a penalty themselves when Ramos booted a ball into teammate Raphael Varane’s arm, but this time there was no whistle.

Ramos and Valverde both could have made it three in the final minutes before substitute Modric did, finishing beautifully after Neto rushed out.


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.”