Monthly Archives: February 2017

Real Sociedad miss chance to go fourth after late Eibar equaliser

REUTERS: Real Sociedad missed the chance to climb above Atletico Madrid into fourth place in La Liga on Tuesday as an injury-time equaliser from Pedro Leon gave neighbours Eibar a 2-2 draw in a Basque derby in which both sides had a player sent off in the second half.

Juanmi Jimenez headed Real Sociedad into the lead in the 14th minute and was booked for lifting up his shirt to pay tribute to Pablo Raez, a 20-year-old leukaemia sufferer from the same province as the striker who died last weekend.

Gonzalo Escalante nodded Eibar level from a corner in the 26th minute but the visitors were reduced to 10 men at the start of the second half when Florian Lejeune picked up a second booking.

Juanmi earned his second yellow card for a shirt tug just before the hour mark to restore numerical parity but Carlos Vela restored the hosts’ lead in the 67th minute from the penalty spot after Inigo Martinez was felled by goalkeeper Yoel Rodriguez.

Eibar coach Jose Luis Mendilibar was sent from the dugout for protesting about the penalty decision but had something to celebrate at the end when Leon’s low shot slipped under the grasp of Real Sociedad goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.

Real Sociedad are fifth in the standings on 45 points, level with Atletico in fourth, with Diego Simeone’s side visiting struggling Deportivo La Coruna on Thursday. Eibar are provisionally seventh on 39 points.

La Liga leaders Real Madrid host Las Palmas on Wednesday while champions Barcelona entertain relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon.

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UKIP rows deepen as Farage calls for only MP to leave

LONDON: Bitter tensions in Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) turned into open war on Tuesday (Feb 28) as founder Nigel Farage called for its only member of parliament to quit.

Farage said Douglas Carswell “actively and transparently seeks to damage us”, writing in the rightwing Daily Telegraph: “The time for him to go is now.”

A key force behind Britain’s vote to leave the EU last year, the party has been struggling for months with infighting and has failed to find a winning platform beyond its core message of euroscepticism and opposition to mass immigration.

A long-standing feud between Farage and Carswell came to a head following UKIP’s defeat last week in a by-election that had been viewed as the party’s best hope to win a second MP.

Tensions increased over Farage’s failed bid to obtain a knighthood for his role in the June referendum vote to leave the European Union.

Emails leaked to the Telegraph show Carswell mocked Farage’s chances of receiving the honour, saying he should get an award for “services to headline writers”.

Farage told the paper that the former Conservative MP had not been supportive, adding: “He is consumed by jealousy and a desire to hurt both UKIP and me.”

The row comes after UKIP donor Arron Banks accused the party at the weekend of being run “like a jumble sale” under new leader Paul Nuttall and threatened to set up a rival movement if it did not shape up.

‘MAKE IT ELECTABLE’

The Brexit vote was a success for UKIP but raised questions about the party’s relevance after Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May promised a clean break with the EU.

Farage resigned as UKIP leader after the referendum and went to the United States to campaign for Donald Trump, but was forced to return as the party descended into chaos. His successor Diane James quit after 18 days, and the favourite to follow her, Steven Woolfe, left the party after an altercation with a fellow MEP.

New leader Nuttall saw a chance to revive UKIP’s fortunes by standing in last week’s by-election in Stoke-on-Trent in northern England, where 69 per cent of locals had voted for Brexit.

But his campaign was dogged by claims he lied about losing close friends in the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, and the opposition Labour party held the seat.

In an interview with the conservative Sunday Express newspaper, Banks demanded to be made chairman of the party so he could “make it electable, or I am out of there”. He called for Carswell to be ejected, saying “these dullards aren’t bringing in Tory votes, Stoke proved that. So what are they for?”

Farage suggested last week that UKIP lost in Stoke because it was not tough enough on immigration, an issue that dominated the EU referendum campaign.

On Tuesday, the MEP accused Carswell of being soft on the subject, adding: “I think there is little future for UKIP with him staying inside this party.”

Carswell responded saying: “If he wants to come and talk to the UKIP parliamentary party about any concerns he has, (it is) very happy to respond. It won’t take long, it’s just me.”

UKIP secured 12.5 per cent of the vote in the 2015 election, but under Britain’s electoral system, Carswell was its only candidate to win a place in the 650-seat House of Commons.

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Espanyol's rise is fuelled by youngsters, not big names

BARCELONA: Chinese-owned Espanyol are pushing for a return to European football for the first time in a decade barely a year after being taken over and their rise has been fuelled by a new generation of home-grown talent rather than big-money signings.

When the Catalans, beaten UEFA Cup finalists in 2007, thrashed Osasuna 3-0 on Sunday to move to within four points of a Europa League spot there was extra satisfaction as six of the 11 players on the pitch had come through the club’s academy.

Defenders Marc Navarro and Aaron Martin and midfielders Marc Roca and Oscar Melendo featured together for the first time since making the leap from the reserve side, joining locally-born midfielder David Lopez and forward Gerard Moreno, who have returned since spells at Napoli and Villarreal respectively.

“These are players that came through on their own merit, they didn’t come in to plug a hole due to an injury, they’re going to have long careers in the top flight,” Angel Morales, head of Espanyol’s academy, told Reuters in an interview at the club’s Dani Jarque training complex.

“We had two generations full of very good footballers who have just reached adulthood and it was only a matter of time before they emerged, so we’re bearing the fruit of lots of hard work in previous years.”

Framed pictures of Melendo, Roca, Martin and Navarro are the latest additions to the walls of the academy’s office which shows every player to have appeared for the first team, from Manchester United defender Eric Bailly to top scorer Raul Tamudo.

Like many Spanish clubs, Espanyol felt the knock-on effect of the country’s deep economic crisis in 2008 and were forced to sell their best players to avoid financial ruin.

Those pressures have eased since Chinese firm Rastar Group purchased a controlling 54 percent stake in the club in January 2016.

New president Chen Yansheng said he wanted to see the club qualify for Europe within two years but their transfer activities have so far been discreet.

Last year they recruited La Liga mainstays Jose Antonio Reyes, Diego Lopez and Pablo Piatti, whose experience has been supplemented by the youthful energy of players such as Navarro and Melendo.

“He has transmitted his confidence in the academy and knows about its importance to the history of Espanyol,” Morales said of Chen.

“It’s nice to be able to keep working as we were before even after he has come in and invested a lot of money, that’s a good sign.”

The arrival of the new owner has also lead to an increase in the number of Chinese players emerging in the youth ranks, something youth coach David Fernandez welcomes as long as it does not compromise the quality of the teams.

“It’s difficult because our competitive level is very high and it’s hard to find the right players but we have a few in our teams and little by little there will be more,” Fernandez said.

“We’re always trying to find exciting talent and if we can find that in Chinese players then that’s doubly good.”

HUGE APPRENTICESHIP

Espanyol coach Quique Sanchez Flores has followed Maurico Pochettino in embracing the club’s youth system but has a way to go before he eclipses the 23 academy players the current Tottenham Hotspur manager brought through.

Morales believes the structure of Spanish football, which unlike English soccer pits reserve teams of top-flight clubs against professional sides filled with hardened veterans, allows youngsters to flourish.

“In Segunda B and Tercera (Spain’s regional third and fourth tiers) you get players in their 30s competing against 19-year-olds and that’s a huge apprenticeship for the young players. You learn 50,000 things in every game,” he said.

“We’ve seen players jump from under-18 level to Segunda B and become men within two seasons as they are competing against teams with different weapons. It means they are knocked into shape very quickly.”

Espanyol have long been cast to the shadows of the city they share with Barcelona, who have won six league titles and three Champions Leagues since Espanyol were last in Europe.

Barca’s La Masia academy has been hailed for producing players such as all-time top scorer Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique, although their production line has slowed in recent years.

Espanyol’s youth system is thriving, however, and Fernandez believes the success of its four latest graduates can drive the club’s resurgence.

“When one player triumphs it opens the door for others, it gives stability to the club and generates identity and feeling and belonging,” he said.

“When I see an academy player make his debut it gives me an indescribable feeling. I remember them arriving as children and have watched them succeed. That’s something money can’t buy.”

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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Thousands protest deal offering wider use of Albanian language in Macedonia

SKOPJE: Several thousand people protested in Skopje against an agreement that would ensure the wider use of the Albanian language in the ethnically divided state.

Last Thursday, the leader of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, said he expected to be able to form a government in March after he had secured support from ethnic Albanian parties in the 120-seat parliament.

Those parties had made their support for any potential coalition conditional on the passage of a law backing broader use of their language in Macedonia.

But on Monday, a movement that called itself “For Joint Macedonia” called on social media for people to come out on the street and protest the deal Zaev had made with the Albanian parties.

Protesters marched from the government building to the state parliament in Skopje shouting “This will not pass” and sang Macedonian national songs.

“With one symbolic gesture we want to show how you should love Macedonia,” said Bogdan Ilievski, a member of the movement.

The Balkan nation’s two-year-old political crisis was triggered by a surveillance scandal that forced veteran leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski, to resign a year ago.

The crisis was the worst since Western diplomacy helped drag the country of 2.1 million people back from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, promising it a path to membership of the European Union and of NATO.

In a snap vote in December, VMRO-DPMNE won 51 seats to the Social Democrats’ 49, and neither was able to form the government without parties representing ethnic Albanians who make up one third of the population.

The conservative VMRO-DPMNE party had tried but failed to form a coalition.

On Monday Zaev asked President Gjorge Ivanov to give him the mandate to form a government and had presented him with the signatures of 18 deputies from ethnic Albanian parties.

On Sunday evening former prime minister Gruevski called on Social Democrats to revoke the deal, saying it was unconstitutional and jeopardised state interests.

Albanian is currently an official language only in municipalities where Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population.

(Reporting by Kole Casule, Writing by Ivana Sekularac, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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India frugal with praise for Pune tormentor O'Keefe

NEW DELHI: Steve O’Keefe was instrumental in helping Australia record one of the most famous test victories in recent times but hosts India have been quick to put their heavy defeat down to the pitch in Pune rather than the 32-year-old spinner’s performance.

Indian batsmen have built a reputation for their prowess against the turning ball over the years but left-armer O’Keefe shattered that aura as Australia bulldozed the world’s top ranked test team inside three days.

O’Keefe’s 12-wicket match haul, the best figures recorded by a visiting spinner on Indian soil, earned him the man-of-the-match award but little else in terms of praise from the vanquished hosts.

India captain Virat Kohli blamed his side’s twin batting collapses on their recklessness, while others felt the turning track had backfired on them.

Out-of-favour off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who has had several run-ins with Australian players, said he was not convinced by O’Keefe’s performance and would need to see him in action on a better track.

“I will have to see (O’Keefe) bowl on a good test match wicket. Not this one,” the 36-year-old, who had predicted a 4-0 series defeat for Australia, told reporters. “Until then, I will reserve my comments.”

O’Keefe and off-spinner Nathan Lyon combined to claim all 10 Indian wickets in the second innings to skittle out the hosts for 107, two more runs than they managed in the first, at a venue making its test debut.

“To be honest, that wasn’t a pitch,” Singh, a veteran of 103 tests, said of the surface used for the series opener.

“Test cricket should last five days. You cannot play on such wickets where anyone runs in to bowl and takes wickets. I have played in over 100 tests, and I know how hard I had to work to earn every single wicket.”

All O’Keefe had to do was to bowl faster through air and be accurate, Singh said.

“You don’t need to flight the ball or anything. You just need to bowl fast and not give the batsmen room to either come down the track, or be able to manoeuvre the ball around.

“Bowling six deliveries in the same spot is all you need to get wickets on such tracks,” he added.

Former coach Ravi Shastri also felt O’Keefe was richly rewarded for his accuracy against the leaden-footed Indian batsmen.

“Steve O’Keefe was controlled and accurate while his preys looked for spin which wasn’t always there,” the former test batsman wrote in a column that appeared in Monday’s Times of India newspaper.

“They invariably ended up playing wrong lines. They didn’t use their feet much either … It’s an issue which can’t be left pending even on fair tracks as even they would scruff up in second innings.

“Indians must find a way to break O’Keefe’s rhythm,” added Shastri.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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Man who intervened in Kansas shooting 'more than happy' to risk life

REUTERS: A Kansas man wounded when he intervened in a bar room shooting that killed an Indian engineer and injured another said on Sunday he was glad he risked his life in an incident U.S. authorities are investigating as a possible hate crime.

Ian Grillot, 24, was struck in the hand and chest at the bar in Olathe, Kansas, when suspect Adam Purinton opened fire on Wednesday evening. At least one bystander told the Kansas City Star he shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the Indian victims.

Purinton, a 51-year-old white Navy veteran, will make an initial appearance in Johnson County District Court on Monday. He faces charges of murder and attempted murder.

Grillot, a construction worker, said that he had to step in when the shooting started in the bar crowded with fans watching a University of Kansas basketball game.

“I was more than happy to risk my life to save the lives of others. There was families, there was kids inside,” he said in a video released by the University of Kansas Health System, where he is recovering from his wounds.

“I couldn’t stand there, I had to do something. That’s why I acted the way I did.”

The hospital said Grillot was continuing to improve. “I did get my chest tube out and that feels much better, but it is hard to describe how sore I feel,” he said.

Purinton is accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32 in the shooting in Olathe, a Kansas City suburb. Both men were engineers with navigation device maker Garmin Ltd.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking at whether the shooting was a hate crime, the official term for crimes motivated by bias or prejudice.

The shooting triggered outrage on Indian social media, where people voiced concern that U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” position on immigration and jobs has fuelled a climate of intolerance.

A White House spokesman said on Friday that any loss of life was tragic, but it would be absurd to link the killing to Trump’s rhetoric.

Local media reports said Purinton often complained about his ill health and was mourning the death of his father.

An online GoFundMe campaign has raised almost US$ 1.2 million for the shooting’s victims and families.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Iraqi forces aim to secure Mosul bridge, link up to east bank

MOSUL, Iraq: U.S.-backed Iraqi forces pushed deeper into western Mosul on Sunday, aiming to capture a bridge across the Tigris which would link the city’s government-held eastern bank with the ongoing offensive against remaining militants in the west.

The bridge is the southernmost of five bridges spanning the Tigris. All were damaged in strikes by the U.S.-led air coalition, and later by Islamic State fighters trying to seal off the western bank still under their control.

“The bridge is very important,” Colonel Falah al-Wabdan of the Interior Ministry’s Rapid Response unit, one of the two main forces spearheading the campaign in western Mosul, told Reuters. “The bridge is about 400 metres away. By the end of the day you will hear that our forces have arrived (there).”

Army engineers plan to rehabilitate the bridge to allow troops to bring in reinforcements and supplies directly from the eastern side, he said.

Iraqi forces captured eastern Mosul in January, after 100 days of fighting. They launched their attack on the districts that lie west of the Tigris a week ago.

If they defeat Islamic State in Mosul, that would crush the Iraq wing of the caliphate that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in 2014 over parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria. The U.S. commander in Iraq has said he believes U.S.-backed forces will recapture both Mosul and Raqqa – Islamic State’s Syria stronghold – within six months.

Army, police, and elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and Rapid Response units forces are attacking Islamic State in west Mosul, with air and ground support from the U.S.-led coalition, including artillery fire. U.S. personnel are operating close to the frontlines to direct air strikes.

Hundreds of people have fled the fighting in the direction of government lines since Thursday, at least 1,200 of them in the early hours of Sunday, according to a CTS officer.

Of those, several dozen had been forcibly taken into Mosul in the early stage of the offensive from nearby regions to serve as human shields.

“We want to return to our home in Mafraq al-Qayyara,” south of Mosul, said 28-year-old Mohammad Allawi Zeidan, as he walked with a group of two dozen people on an agricultural road between Mosul airport and the Tigris river nearby.

He said they were held hostage in Hawi al-Josaq, a riverside district that the Rapid Response unit is trying to capture on its way towards the bridge.

Islamic State forced tens of thousands of people to leave villages south of Mosul and walk alongside the jihadists as they retreated in late October toward the city. Thousands of them were freed in earlier stages of the offensive.

TOUGH BATTLE AHEAD

Iraqi troops have already captured the southern and western accesses to western Mosul, dislodging the militants from the airport, a military base, a power station and one residential district, al-Maamoun, according to military statements.

Commanders say they will soon complete the recapture of two others residential district, al-Tayyaran and Hawi al-Josaq.

They are currently about three kilometres (2 miles) from the old city centre and the main government buildings, the capture of which would effectively mean the fall of Mosul.

Iraqi commanders expect the battle to be more difficult as they get closer to the old city in part because tanks and armoured vehicles cannot pass through its narrow alleyways.

Several thousand militants, including many who travelled from Western countries to join up, are believed to be holed up in the city with practically nowhere to go, which could lead to a fierce standoff amid a remaining civilian population of 750,000.

They are facing a 100,000-strong force made up of Iraqi armed forces, regional Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iranian-trained Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups.

The militants have developed a network of passageways and tunnels to enable them to hide and fight among civilians, melt away after hit-and-run operations and track government troop movements, according to inhabitants.

A resident of Hawi al-Josaq who gave his name as Mohammed said the troops need to inspect each house to ensure no militants remained.

“Even if they just kill one soldier they consider themselves victorious,” he said, as he took a jug of milk from a boy at the door. He said the family had been living on milk and bread for the last two weeks as they were unable to go to the market.

Sniper, machine gun and mortar fire could be heard. A soldier said fighting in the blocks further north was going from house to house.

The United Nations says up to 400,000 people may have to leave their homes during the new offensive as food and fuel runs out in western Mosul. Aid groups warned on Friday that the most dangerous phase of the offensive was about to begin.

The government is encouraging residents to stay in their homes whenever possible, as they did in eastern Mosul where fewer people fled than expected.

(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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Australia find formula to exploit India weaknesses

PUNE, India: Australia’s utter dominance in Pune provided clear evidence that the touring side arrived in India armed with the tactics and personnel to beat the hosts at their own game in what promises to be a compelling four-test series.

Few would have predicted the events that unfolded in the opener, however, with top-ranked India riding a 19-test unbeaten run against a rebuilding Australian side regarded as massive underdogs by captain Steve Smith.

The odds were heavily stacked against a side that had lost their previous nine tests in Asia and suffered a 4-0 whitewash when they last toured India in 2013, but Smith and his men were in the mood to cause an upset.

“Everyone wrote us off and expected India to win 4-0,” a smiling Smith told reporters after Australia had eased to a stunning 333-run victory within three days on Saturday. “That can’t happen any more.”

Pune was hosting a test for a first time and the bone dry pitch appeared tailor-made for India’s vaunted spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to enhance their reputation as the top two bowlers in the test rankings.

Instead, it was Australian left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe who shone the brightest of the slow bowlers, scything through India twice with identical figures of 6-35 to help dismiss the shell-shocked hosts for 105 and 107 in their two innings.

O’Keefe alone matched Ashwin and Jadeja’s combined haul over both innings as he and off-spinner Nathan Lyon took all 10 Indian wickets to fall on Saturday.

The touring side were also far more proficient with the bat than the hosts, adapting better to the tricky conditions by taking fewer risks and putting away any loose deliveries.

Australia’s batsmen saw out close to 182 overs in their two innings while their Indian counterparts, who grew up playing on the country’s low and slow surfaces, lost all 20 wickets in just 74 overs.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Fresh and confident after morale-boosting wins with a new-look lineup over South Africa and Pakistan at home, Australia bonded at a pre-tour training camp in Dubai and honed their skills with a three-day match against India ‘A’ in Mumbai.

The world’s second-ranked side strengthened their hand by recruiting ex-England spinner Monty Panesar and former India spinning all-rounder Sridharan Sriram to work with their slow bowlers.

There was little sign of the carnage to follow when O’Keefe failed to get anything out of the new ball on Friday morning, so he used the lunch interval to head straight to the practice nets for a session with Sriram.

Whatever they worked on paid immediate dividends in a stunning afternoon of play, which saw O’Keefe rip through India’s formidable batting lineup with six wickets in the space of just 24 deliveries.

“I’d been working in the nets with some other variations, just changing the seam angle and arm angle,” O’Keefe said on Friday. “You probably don’t notice it, but for me it made all the difference.”

After Australia’s spinners took 17 wickets to out-bowl their Indian counterparts in Pune, the hosts will now be less confident of having a major advantage should they decide to produce turning tracks for the remainder of the series.

“It was up to them to prepare a wicket and they prepared a wicket that actually played into our hands,” Smith said. “It would be interesting to see what they come up with come Bangalore.”

Smith rated his second innings 109, a maiden ton on Indian soil, as one of the best of his 18 hundreds and was also keen to heap praise on rookie opening batsman Matt Renshaw, who amassed 99 runs in the test despite suffering from an upset stomach.

With the 20-year-old Renshaw’s opening partner David Warner also due a big score, Australia will head to Bengaluru confident of being able to answer every question posed by the hosts.

(Editing by John O’Brien)

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'Arab Idol' talent show win sends Palestinians into raptures

GAZA: Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate the victory of their compatriot Yaqoub Shaheen on Saturday in “Arab Idol”, a hugely popular Middle East television talent show on the Dubai-based channel MBC1.

This year’s final, filmed in Lebanon, was between a Yemeni, Ammar Mohammed, and two Palestinian competitors, Shaheen from Bethlehem and Ameer Dandan from the town of Majd al-Krum in Israel but resident in the United States.

After he was named as the winner, Shaheen performed a patriotic song while wearing the Palestinian flag on his shoulders, singing the line: “My pledge and my oath, my blood is Palestinian”.

In Gaza and in the occupied West Bank thousands of people had filled restaurants and street coffee shops, many of them having reserved their seats in advance, in order to watch the final on large public screens.

“It is a national day. A national historic day for Palestine,” said Mohammed Abu Ali, 40, sitting with his wife and three children in a cafe in Gaza watching the final.

People watching the show in public hugged one another, cheered and whistled as Shaheen was named the 2017 Arab Idol. 

Dozens of taxi drivers touring the streets across Gaza honked their horns and played some of the songs performed by the winning singer during the weeks-long programme.

The winner of the show, based on the British show “Pop Idol”, is chosen by the audience, which votes by text message. Palestinian and Yemeni politicians urged supporters to vote in support of their favoured candidates and phone companies offered special deals to encourage voting.

On Friday, the first night of the final, a high-profile Palestinian delegation led by the president’s son attended the show at the MBC studios in Beirut.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was also in Lebanon for an official visit, hosted the three finalists at his embassy’s residence.

Inside the studio many Yemenis were also present for the final, wearing traditional clothes in support of Mohammed and chanting and dancing, but to no avail.

“There are faces of victory, political and musical. Today it is musical, but we hope one day we will have our political victory,” said Abu Ali, the Palestinian man celebrating with his family in Gaza.

(Reporting By Nidal Mughrabi; Writing by Angus McDowall)

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Zidane warns Real to be wary of 'game of the year' for opponents

REUTERS: Real Madrid’s players need to be prepared for rival teams raising their game when they meet the La Liga leaders, coach Zinedine Zidane said on Saturday.

“We know we have to always improve but it’s difficult because when teams play us it’s always their game of the year,” Zidane told a news conference.

“Sometimes you don’t even recognise the opponent when they play against us but that’s normal because playing against Real Madrid is an extra motivation for everyone and we have to always remember that.”

Real, looking for their first title since 2012, were caught out on Wednesday when Valencia woke up from a poor season to inflict only the second defeat of the campaign on Zidane’s side.

The defeat cost Real the chance to gain ground on their rivals, though they remain one point clear of Barcelona going into the weekend’s matches.

On Sunday, Real visit Villarreal, who are sixth in the standings and have the best defence in the league, and Zidane expects a stern test from Fran Escriba’s side.

“It’s an even more difficult game against a really good side who are well organised but it’s good to play so soon after Wednesday; we have the opportunity to pick up points and that’s what we’re going to try and do,” he said.

The weekend could have a large say in the title race, with second-placed Barcelona facing a testing encounter at Atletico Madrid hours before Real meet Villarreal.

“We can’t control that game, we will see it but the most important thing is what we do in our game,” said the coach.

Real could be boosted by Gareth Bale making his first start since injuring his ankle in November. Zidane said the Wales international, who came on as a substitute against Valencia and in the 2-0 win over Espanyol, was “physically 100 percent”.

Portugal defender Pepe is expected to play, after making a first league appearance since December against Espanyol, as France centre back Raphael Varane has been ruled out for five weeks with a thigh problem.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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