- Associated Press - Saturday, December 23, 2017

MADRID (AP) - Barcelona has almost ended Real Madrid’s defense of its Spanish league title, and there’s still half a season to go.

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez left Madrid staring at a 14-point deficit after leading Barcelona to a 3-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.

Madrid has a game in hand, but the gap already looks too big as La Liga approaches its midway point.

“It is a loss that hurts,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “It is a very, very difficult match for us. But this is not over. It might look like it, but we can never give up.”

Barcelona increased its lead to nine points over second-place Atletico Madrid, which lost at Espanyol on Friday. Valencia’s 1-0 loss to Villarreal at home on Saturday left it 11 points back.

Suarez struck in the 54th minute and Messi added a penalty 10 minutes later after Madrid’s Dani Carvajal received a direct red for stopping a goal-bound header by Paulinho.

Messi also set up substitute Aleix Vidal to round off the commanding win in stoppage time.

Despite the standings, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde and his players aren’t excluding a Madrid comeback.

“We took another step forward in the league but I don’t rule out Madrid,” Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. “This is a long-distance race.”

But Barcelona is undoubtedly performing like a champion-in-waiting.

It extended its unbeaten streak to 25 matches across all competitions since losing to Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup in August, when Barcelona was reeling from the departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain.

That all seemed light years away on Saturday with Barcelona resisting an early push by the hosts before imposing its will.

The match was a contrast in tempos: Madrid wanted a frantic, up-and-down shootout, with Cristiano Ronaldo having space to roam, while Barcelona wanted to hold the ball and let Messi pick his moments.

Ronaldo beat Messi for the Ballon d’Or this month but the Portuguese failed to make a decisive impact on Saturday as Messi took his clasico record to 25 goals in 37 matches and his season-leading tally to 15 in the league.

Zidane left Spain midfielder Francisco “Isco” Alarcon on the bench in a surprise move. Instead, he gave Mateo Kovacic his first league start of the season, hoping to repeat his success from the Spanish Super Cup where the Croatian was charged with man-marking Messi.

After Barcelona shook off Madrid’s early intense pressure, helped by the more physical Kovacic, the Catalan club made Madrid look clueless.

Zidane defended his choice after the stinging loss.

“I am here to take decisions … nothing is going to change what I think,” Zidane said.

Ronaldo had an early goal disallowed for offside, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen got his foot on Ronaldo’s strike to turn it past the post, and Karim Benzema headed off the post in the 42nd.

Then Suarez scored the opener. Sergio Busquets cued Barcelona with a forward pass for Ivan Rakitic, who pushed down the middle before playing Sergi Roberto wide. The right back’s one-touch pass found Suarez arriving from the left to drill his shot under goalie Keylor Navas.

Madrid collapsed after falling behind, losing ball after ball to Barcelona.

Messi seized the moment by playing Suarez clear. After Suarez hit the post, Carvajal blatantly used his arm to stop Paulinho’s header from going in - a decision that earned him a direct red card and sent Messi to the penalty spot to fire his strike in.

Trying to spark a comeback, Zidane sent on forwards Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale, who drew a save from Ter Stegen.

But it was Messi who, despite losing his right boot to Marcelo’s tackle, reached the endline before finding Vidal to cap the win, as Barcelona won a third straight league visit at Madrid for the first time in their long rivalry.

“It’s complicated, some would say impossible, but Madrid is obliged to fight until the end,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said.

The game came only two days after separatist political parties in Catalonia, whose capital is Barcelona, won a majority of seats in the regional parliament.

The only reference to Spain’s political crisis came from Ramos, who made a joke about Catalonia’s fugitive former leader, Carles Puigdemont.

Ramos quipped that “in Barcelona they will say I should go to prison like Puigdemont” for using his arm to swipe at Suarez, an outburst that earned him a yellow card. Puigdemont has fled to Belgium for pushing forward an illegal declaration of independence in October.


Villarreal got a goal from Carlos Bacca to beat regional rival Valencia, which lost striker Simone Zaza to two yellow cards.

Iago Aspas struck twice as Celta Vigo won at Deportivo La Coruna 3-1 in the Galician derby in northwestern Spain.


AP writer Joseph Wilson contributed from Barcelona, Spain.

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