Real Madrid streak threatened by upbeat Valencia

La Liga leaders Real Madrid face one of their toughest tests since embarking on a 22-game winning streak back in September when they start 2015 with a trip to Valencia on Sunday.

Real Madrid streak threatened by upbeat Valencia
Gareth Bale has been linked with a return to the Premiership. Photo: Dani Pozo/AFP

Los Che have reason to be optimistic in the new year with a return to Champions League football for next season top of their agenda.

Valencia sit fourth, a solitary point above Sevilla, Villarreal and Malaga, but demonstrated their financial advantage over the other Champions League hopefuls following Singaporean businessman Peter Lim's recent acquisition of the club by splashing out €25 million ($30 million) on Argentine international midfielder Enzo Perez this week.

"I have the greatest expectations of making a good start here," Perez said as he was presented to the Valencia fans on Friday. I hope that this new project at Valencia grows, and that 2015 will be a happy year for us all."

Perez is expected to make his Mestalla debut against a Real side still shorn of Luka Modric through injury.

Sergio Ramos is also a serious doubt having played with a calf injury as the European champions ended 2014 by collecting their fourth trophy of the year in the Club World Cup against San Lorenzo a fortnight ago.

Unusually the opening of the transfer window has sparked rumours of possible departures from the Santiago Bernabeu rather than big money signings with Gareth Bale linked with a move to Manchester United.

However, the Welshman, who scored in his third final for Los Blancos with his 11th of the season in the Club World Cup final, has dismissed suggestions that he could leave the Spanish capital after a remarkably successful 18 months since joining from Tottenham Hotspur.

"It has been a fantastic year for me. I wanted to come to Real Madrid to win titles and work alongside the best players and that is exactly what I have done in a single year," he told the club's website.

"Hopefully we can keep improving, keep winning titles and I can keep showing my best."

Barcelona start the year just a point adrift of Real at the top, but having played a game more.

The Catalans also face a potentially tricky trip away to David Moyes's Real Sociedad on Sunday and have had little time to prepare for the game as a group following the Christmas break.

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Dani Alves only returned to training on Friday, while the latter remains a doubt due to a hamstring injury.

"Every game now is a chance to cut the gap," said Barca goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, who will be facing the club he played with for eight years before joining Barca in June.

"It depends on us playing well and, sooner or later, our rivals will drop points."

Moyes, meanwhile, has urged his players to summon the spirit and performance levels which saw them defeat Real and Atletico Madrid at home this season before his appointment.

"We respect Barcelona because they are a very good team, but they are coming to San Sebastian and we have to show them this is not an easy place to come and win," said the Scot.

"My players have already shown that they are capable of beating Barcelona." 

Champions Atletico Madrid host Levante in the first La Liga match of the year on Saturday, but Fernando Torres will not be available to mark his return to the Vicente Calderon as his move from AC Milan cannot be formally completed until the Italian transfer window opens on Monday.

Fixtures (all times GMT):


Atletico Madrid v Levante (1500), Sevilla v Celta Vigo (1700), Elche v Villarreal (1900), Deportivo la Coruna v Athletic Bilbao (2100), Malaga v Almeria (2100)


Getafe v Rayo Vallecano (1100), Valencia v Real Madrid (1600), Espanyol v Eibar (1800), Real Sociedad v Barcelona (2000)


Cordoba v Granada (1945)

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Black Lives Matter: Marcelo ‘takes the knee’ to celebrate Real Madrid win

Marcelo celebrated by taking a knee as Real Madrid returned from three months away following the coronavirus suspension by beating Eibar 3-1 on Sunday.

Black Lives Matter: Marcelo 'takes the knee' to celebrate Real Madrid win
Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo kneels on the field to celebrate his goal. Photo: AFP

After scoring Madrid's third goal in the 37th minute, Marcelo dropped onto his left knee and raised his clinched right fist into the air, apparently in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Madrid's win may have come at a cost as Eden Hazard and Sergio Ramos were both substituted early in the second half and were seen with ice packs strapped to them while sitting in the stands.

Hazard was making his first start since February and his ice pack appeared to be around his troublesome right ankle, which he injured in November and February, before undergoing surgery in March.

“We knew Eden would lack a bit of rhythm playing the whole game,” coach Zinedine Zidane said.

“He played well for an hour, he took a knock which was a scare but at half-time he said he was fine. He is happy with what he has done and we are happy with him.”

Madrid's win means they reduce the gap behind league leaders Barcelona back to two points after the Catalans thrashed Real Mallorca 4-0 on Saturday.    

Madrid struck in the fourth minute after a superb strike from Toni Kroos before Ramos tucked away Hazard's pass on the counter-attack.    

Eibar pulled one back in the second half through Pedro Bigas but never found the second to make Madrid nervous, despite a brief spell of pressure.    

Before going off, Hazard was busy, the Belgian involved in all three goals.    

His weaving run through midfield led to Kroos' shot and it was his effort that was cleared out to Marcelo, who drove into the corner.    

After a miserable opening season in Spain, it was a bright start for Hazard, who could now redeem himself by playing a crucial role in the run-in, if he can stay injury-free.

Perhaps even more impressive though was Karim Benzema, who linked up brilliantly with Hazard and was unfortunate not to get the goal an excellent all-round performance deserved.

Gareth Bale started on the bench but came on and could start against Valencia on Thursday.

Zidane is likely to rotate heavily over the next few weeks, with the games coming thick and fast.

New surroundings

Madrid's coach will also have been pleased to get off to a positive start in their new training ground home, which was the 100th different stadium to be used in La Liga.

They will be playing all their remaining home matches at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium to allow renovation work at the Santiago Bernabeu to continue this summer.

“We know the situation, it's all a bit strange,” said Zidane. “But the players are all champions and we have to get our heads around it.”    

Barca had needed less than two minutes to score against Mallorca and Madrid were only slightly later, as Hazard broke through Eibar's midfield and Casemiro set Benzema free.

The ball was cleared to Kroos on the edge of the area, who struck first time, sidefooting perfectly into the far top right-hand corner.   

Ramos doubled their advantage after starting, and finishing, a ruthless counter-attack. In between, Benzema and Hazard were involved again, the former picking out the latter, who generously gave Ramos an open goal.

Marcelo put Eibar all but out of sight before half-time as Benzema played through for Hazard and his shot spilled out to Marcelo to lash into the corner.

Eibar were better after the break as Edu Exposito forced a full-stretch save from Thibaut Courtois and then Sergi Enrich headed against the crossbar. 

Bigas did score after diverting in Pedro Leon's shot but Madrid held on.    

Earlier, Diego Costa scored his first goal since October but Atletico Madrid missed the chance to move into La Liga's top four by drawing 1-1 away at Athletic Bilbao.

Costa celebrated by holding up the shirt of Virgina Torrecilla, a player from Atletico's women's team, who underwent surgery on a brain tumour last month.

His equaliser came two minutes after the excellent Iker Muniain had given Bilbao the lead towards the end of the first half and neither side could find a winner at the empty San Mames, with Atletico defender Santiago Arias missing the best chance late on.

Diego Simeone's side stay sixth, level on points with Getafe and one behind Real Sociedad, who were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Osasuna.