By James Whelan
REAL MADRID’S hopes of winning the Primera Liga are still alive and the return of striker Raul after three months out injured has given coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro even more reason for optimism about the future.
Real’s comfortable 3-0 victory over Alaves on Saturday maintained their challenge for the Spanish title although, soon after the game finished, rivals Barcelona thrashed Betis 5-1 in the Nou Camp to maintain a seven -point gap at the top of La Liga.
Valencia stole a 2-1 victory over Real Sociedad after a second-half brace from Mario Regueiro in San Sebastien to go second last night.
Real were already 2-0 up after 10 minutes with goals from Guti and Robinho, with David Beckham’s second-half replacement, Cicinho, sealing the game late on.
The highlight was the return of Real’s talisman Raul, whose arrival on the pitch was greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by the adoring home crowd.
But in what may have been a hint that the Spanish international may not be in the starting line-up for tomorrow night’s Champions League match against Arsenal in the Bernabeu, coach Lopez Caro added: "Let’s hope he’s fully match-fit very soon; he can make a great contribution to the team."
The crowd’s opinion of Ronaldo’s performance appeared mixed when he was substituted during the second half, but the Real coach defended him.
"I heard nothing but applause when he was substituted; he remains fundamental to this team," said Lopez Caro.
Villarreal, meanwhile, prepared for their Champions League trip to Rangers on Wednesday with a 4-0 win at home to Espanyol, Alessio Tacchinardi, Marcos Senna and Diego Forlán all striking in the first half and Héctor Font adding a late fourth. Sevilla FC stay fifth, Javier Saviola’s 10th-minute strike defeating RC Celta de Vigo.
In Italy leaders Juventus, who face Bremen on Wednesday, were held 2-2 by Messina, allowing AC Milan to claw back ground with a 1-0 win over relegation candidates Cagliari with a 23rd-minute penalty by Alberto Gilardino.
Third-placed Inter Milan earned a 0-0 draw at Livorno. Having beaten Inter 2-1 last weekend, Juventus were not expected to be tested by lowly Messina. But they needed a goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a penalty by Adrian Mutu to take one point after Fabio Cannavaro was sent off.
Fourth-placed Roma equalled the all-time Serie A record of 10 wins in a row with a 1-0 defeat of Empoli in which their captain Francesco Totti broke his ankle early in the game.
In Germany, distracted Bayern Munich lost goalkeeper Oliver Kahn to injury but managed to snatch a 1-1 draw away to Hanover 96 thanks to a late Michael Ballack header.
Thomas Brdaric headed Hanover into the lead in the 56th minute, shortly after Kahn went off clutching his thigh - putting him in doubt for tomorrow’s home tie against AC Milan.
Hamburg SV trimmed Bayern’s lead in the Bundesliga to eight points by winning 2-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Werder Bremen, 1-0 winners away to Borussia Dortmund with an Ivan Klasnic goal on Saturday, are third.
In France, Juninho scored one goal and set up another to put Olympique Lyon back on the winning trail with a 3-1 victory over Nantes.
The champions, who had a 14-point cushion in mid-January, clinched their first Ligue 1 success in more than a month after three consecutive draws against AJ Auxerre, Bordeaux and Racing Lens.
They are seven points clear of Girondins Bordeaux, who won 2-0 at struggling AC Ajaccio. Lille in third are another eight points behind.
Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven (who play Lyon in midweek) won 3-1 at Vitesse Arnhem to stay five points clear of Feyenoord, who destroyed neighbours Sparta Rotterdam 4-0 to go second after AZ Alkmaar’s shock 3-2 defeat at home by Utrecht.
Ajax Amsterdam climbed to fourth after hitting six without reply against RBC Roosendaal.
Liverpool’s Champions League opponents Benfica, have endured a mini-slump, losing three of their last five matches including a 2-0 defeat by Vitória SC on Saturday.