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Ronaldo versus Messi: Scoring race heats up in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Regardless of who wins the Spanish league title, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be battling it out to the end.

Real Madrid doesn’t have much chance of keeping Barcelona from winning the league, but Ronaldo is making a strong run to snag the scoring title from Messi with nine matches remaining.

[ MORE: (Very) Fresh faces for USMNT ]

Ronaldo added another four goals in Madrid’s 6-3 win over Girona on Sunday, giving him 22 for the season. That is only three below Messi, who scored his 25th in Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao.

“Hopefully he can catch him,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo. “It’s important for him and for us, too. When he’s playing well, the team plays well. He transmits an important and positive energy to the group. He’s always in very good form come the end of the season. He’s got an eye for goal and he’ll never lose that.”

Ronaldo has scored at least one goal in his last eight matches in all competitions. He has 21 goals in his last 11 games.

“He’s unbelievably ambitious and that comes across in every training session and in everything he does on the field,” Zidane said. “If he has a penalty in training, he will take it with the maximum concentration. It’s what makes him different from the rest.”

Ronaldo is trying to keep Messi from winning the top-scorer’s “Pichichi” trophy for the second consecutive year. The Argentina forward scored 37 league goals last season, 12 more than Ronaldo.

Ronaldo hasn’t won the award since 2014-15, when he had 48 goals. That was still shy of Messi’s record of 50 goals in 2011-12.

Despite’s Ronaldo’s impressive run, Madrid’s chances of repeating as league champion remain slim. Madrid trails Barcelona by 15 points after 29 matches. The teams will play again in May in a league match at Camp Nou. They could also meet in the Champions League semifinals or the final.

Messi scored twice against Madrid this season – in a 3-1 loss in the Spanish Super Cup final at the beginning of the season and in a 3-0 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in a league match late last year. Ronaldo scored against the Catalan club in that Spanish Super Cup game.

Messi has scored at least a goal in his last six matches in all competitions. He has scored at least 25 league goals in nine consecutive seasons with Barcelona.

“Messi is the best player in the world and he shows it game after game,” Athletic defender Unai Nunez said after his team’s loss to Barcelona on Sunday.

Ronaldo has scored at least 25 league goals in the last eight seasons. He scored four or more goals in a match with Madrid eight times.

“He’s on unbelievable form at the moment,” Madrid forward Lucas Vazquez said of Ronaldo. “He helps the team with his work, goals and assists. Everyone benefits from it.”

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

PAOK punishment threatens Greek title hopes

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) A sports court in Greece has punished league title contender PAOK for match violence, deducting three points from its tally and ordering the northern club to play its next two home matches without fans.

A Feb. 25 match between PAOK and Olympiakos was canceled after Olympiakos coach Oscar Garcia was hit in the face by a roll of paper thrown from the stands.

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The court on Monday awarded the match to Olympiakos. The ruling was not immediately implemented because PAOK has the right to appeal.

PAOK and AEK Athens are fighting to break the dominance of Olympiakos which has lost only two championships in the last 21 years.

AEK leads the standings with 54 points, followed by PAOK on 52 and Olympiakos on 47.

Police say officer collapsed by himself during fan violence

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MADRID (AP) The riot police officer who died of cardiac arrest during crowd trouble before a Europa League match in Spain collapsed on his own and not in a direct confrontation with fans, authorities said Friday.

Officials in the Basque region of Spain said doctors dismissed the possibility the cardiac arrest was caused by any type of trauma sustained by the officer in fighting that took place before the match between Athletic Bilbao and Russian club Spartak Moscow on Thursday.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

There had been conflicting reports about what caused the officer’s death, with some saying he might have been involved in a struggle with fans or was hit by one of the many objects being thrown during the altercation.

Five people remained detained – three Russian nationals and two Spaniards – following the violent clashes that took place less than four months before the World Cup is held in Russia.

Authorities identified the victim as 51-year-old Inocencio Alonso Garcia and said he “suddenly felt ill in the course of the serious incidents” that took place outside San Mames Stadium in the northern city of Bilbao.

They said the officer was quickly transported from the scene but went into cardiac arrest before arriving at the nearby Basurto hospital. Doctors said they tried to revive him for more than an hour.

Video footage published by local media appeared to show the moment the officer collapsed while standing near the fighting along with other policemen.

Other images of the clashes showed fans hitting each other, and a group of policemen striking a man on the ground after he fell trying to run away.

The officer who died was among the large police force summoned to try to keep order as several hundred Russian fans – many of them considered by local authorities as radical ultras – arrived in the city for the round-of-32 match in Europe’s second-tier club competition.

The trouble erupted as police were escorting Spartak fans into the stadium and a stray group allegedly started igniting fireworks and throwing flares and objects toward Athletic supporters and police officers.

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Police said “violent fans from both clubs” participated in the fighting which spread onto the streets near the stadium located in a central area of Bilbao. Many fans were seen trying to run away from the trouble as fireworks went off all around.

Authorities said they had identified several people before the fighting carrying items that included knives, iron bars, brass knuckles and even bags of stones.

There had been reports of other minor clashes involving Russian fans in Bilbao ahead of Thursday’s match, which Spartak won 2-1. Athletic advanced despite the loss, winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.

UEFA condemned the violent clashes and said it was in contact with local authorities to obtain more information on the incidents, while Spanish league president Javier Tebas called for action by FIFA and UEFA to halt fan violence.

Bilbao will host matches in the 2020 European Championship. Six years ago, a fan died in the city in clashes after a match between Athletic and German club Schalke.

Earlier Thursday, German police arrested a Russian suspected of seriously injuring a British soccer fan during the European Championship in France two years ago.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Villarreal opens probe into Semedo’s reported arrest

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MADRID (AP) Spanish club Villarreal says it is investigating the actions of defender Ruben Semedo after reports that he was arrested for a violent incident.

The club said it is “highly concerned” about the issue and “will take the appropriate disciplinary actions with utmost rigor based on the seriousness of the events.”

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The statement was released after Spanish media reported that the Portuguese player was taken into custody early Tuesday for allegedly being involved in a hostile confrontation with another man last week.

Police did not immediately confirm Semedo’s arrest.

Emery makes PSG roar in Ligue 1, silent in Champions League

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PARIS (AP) A 6-1 humiliation from Barcelona plus the loss of the French title were not enough to end Unai Emery’s tenure as Paris Saint-Germain coach last year.

PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi decided to keep Emery, probably thinking that spending 400 million euros on new forwards would help solve the team’s defensive weaknesses. And bring the Champions League trophy he craves so much to the French capital.

[ MORE: PSG squabbling after first leg ]

The big investment has brought instant dividends in the French league. After 25 matches, PSG enjoys a 12-point lead over defending champion Monaco going into the home game against promoted Strasbourg on Saturday.

Neymar, Edinson Cavani, and Kylian Mbappe have been formidable, and only a couple of teams threaten PSG’s hegemony. Emery does not have to scratch his head too much to find the appropriate tactics to dominate the local league.

The Champions League is a different story.

A year after the Barcelona fiasco, Emery – a respected tactician who guided Sevilla to three Europa League titles – had the chance to redeem himself at PSG against Champions League-holder Real Madrid in their last-16 first leg match this week.

He took bold risks, but his moves backfired as Neymar, Cavani, and Mbappe were silenced. They left Madrid 3-1 losers, on the verge of another early elimination from Europe’s top competition.

The fact that Madrid was not particularly impressive makes PSG’s loss even harder to take, and other tactical choices might have produced a different result. Emery’s decisions to leave captain Thiago Silva on the bench, to start Presnel Kimpembe at center half, and to omit Lassana Diarra or Thiago Motta in midfield to make room for Giovani Lo Celso turned into big question marks.

Kimpembe did well until the 83rd minute when his poor pass led to Cristiano Ronaldo’s second goal of the evening.

The biggest gamble was likely on Lo Celso as holding midfielder in a position that did not suit him, for a game that everybody expected to be played at a very high pace.

The talented Argentine was often caught out of position and gave away a penalty for a silly foul on Toni Kroos. Emery failed to deal with Lo Celso’s struggles properly and left him on the pitch for an 85-minute ordeal. Surprisingly, Emery praised Lo Celso for his “great match,” preferring to blame the referee for the loss.

“The team played well,” Emery said. “They showed character.”

Emery also left observers puzzled by his decision to replace Cavani with Thomas Meunier just after the hour mark. Cavani, the French league’s top striker, delivered a mediocre performance but, in his defense, had been set up just once by Neymar.

The Brazil star, who was bought by PSG for 222 million euros precisely to be a factor in the Champions League, played second fiddle to Ronaldo throughout the match. Neymar had a hand in Adrien Rabiot’s opening goal with a backheel assist, but his flashes of brilliance were not enough. Neymar’s striking partner Mbappe was disappointing too, failing to convert three good chances.

“We always say the same things, we always do the same things and, in the end, we are always floored in the same way,” Rabiot said. “The problem is that it’s easy to put eight goals against Dijon, or four, in the league. It’s in matches like this that you have to be decisive.”