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Madrid enduring its worst struggles in decades

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MADRID (AP) The first season without Cristiano Ronaldo is proving to be a difficult one for Real Madrid.

The Spanish powerhouse hasn’t been this bad in more than two decades.

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Not since 1996 had Madrid lost 10 matches at this point of the season. That team, led by Raul Gonzalez, lost 12 times by the end of January. Madrid’s team coached by Guus Hiddink three years later also struggled, losing 10 of its first 32 matches in all competitions, exactly like this season.

But all had gone mostly well for Madrid since then, especially after Ronaldo arrived in 2009 and led the club to a trove of trophies.

“The last few years have been some of the best in the history of Real Madrid,” defender Nacho Fernandez says. “It’s going to be difficult to match or surpass that.”

Madrid’s latest loss was at Leganes in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. It still advanced to the quarterfinals after having won the first leg 3-0, but the defeat again exposed some of the team’s problems since Ronaldo departed to join Juventus:

COACHING WOES

Zinedine Zidane left just before Ronaldo and his absence has been felt just as badly.

Madrid replaced the France great with Julen Lopetegui, but the former Spain coach lasted only about three months before he was sacked.

Former player Santiago Solari arrived as an interim coach and was given the full-time job after a good start, but confidence in him has quickly eroded as the team continues to be inconsistent.

He has struggled to manage some of his players, including Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, who could be on his way out because of his lack of playing minutes. He was substituted in the second half against Leganes on Wednesday.

Calls for another coaching change have been getting louder, adding to the team’s instability on the field.

BETTING ON YOUTH

Madrid did not make any blockbuster signing to try to replace Ronaldo, betting instead on youngsters such as Vinicius Junior, who is only 18.

The Brazilian has shown signs he could be a star, but still lacks the experience to lead the squad.

Mariano Diaz was given the No. 7 jersey when Ronaldo left, but his season has been marred by injuries and he hasn’t been able to contribute much so far.

SLUGGISH VETERANS

Madrid hoped veterans Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema could take over the leadership role that Ronaldo used to carry, but that never happened even though their numbers improved significantly after the Portuguese star left.

They each have scored more goals, but haven’t been consistent enough to also notch victories.

DEFENSIVE STRUGGLES

The club has conceded more than 30 goals and has one of the worst defenses among the teams in the top half of the Spanish league standings.

It lost 3-0 to Sevilla, Eibar, and CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, and was demoralized by Barcelona 5-1 in the league at Camp Nou Stadium.

“We know that we have to get better,” midfielder Casemiro says.

INJURIES

It hasn’t helped coach Solari that he lost Bale, Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Diaz to lengthy injuries. Benzema is the latest concern for Solari because of a broken hand.

“It’s been an atypical season with all the injuries,” Fernandez says. “We haven’t been playing our best soccer, but there is a lot of season left.”

Madrid’s next match is on Saturday at home against Sevilla in the Spanish league. Madrid is fourth in the standings, 10 points behind leader Barcelona after 19 matches.

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Report: Chelsea will only sell Hazard for $127 million

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Chelsea may be prepared to let Eden Hazard leave this summer, but not unless they receive a substantial transfer fee.

According to a report from The Telegraph, Chelsea will only sell Hazard for upwards of $127 million. Hazard has long been rumored to make a move to Real Madrid, but although he’s in the last year and a half of his contract, Chelsea appear prepared to lose him for free than for a small fee.

The 28-year-old Belgian winger has had a terrific season, with ten goals and ten assists through 18 Premier League games this season. With Christian Pulisic coming in to the club in the summer, it could be a sign that Chelsea are looking to cash in on all of Hazard’s value.

However, it could just be a game of hardball between Chelsea and Real Madeid, raising the bar so that eventually they can meet in the middle.

In the meantime, Chelsea will continue to enjoy Hazard’s terrific talent, and see if they can make a push back into the UEFA Champions League.

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema injures right hand

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema had to be substituted at halftime of Sunday’s Spanish league match at Real Betis after hurting his right hand.

Madrid coach Santiago Solari said Benzema had fractured his hand.

“He was in a lot of pain,” Solari said.

Madrid was already without Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos, Marco Asensio, Mariano Diaz and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to injury.

Benzema needed to be attended by team doctors when he fell after a brush with a Betis defender in first-half stoppage time.

He was replaced by reserve-team player Cristo Gonzalez during the break.

Benzema leads Madrid in scoring with 12 goals in all competitions this season.

La Liga: Messi scores 400th in rout; the Madrids hold serve

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A roundup of all of the weekend’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: What we learned in the Premier League, Week 22 ]

Barcelona 3-0 Eibar

Lionel Messi became the first player to ever score 400 goals in one of Europe’s top five leagues (WATCH HERE), because of course he did. Other than that, Sunday was little more than a routine day out for Barcelona, who maintained their five-point lead in the title race with a 3-0 victory over Eibar.

Luis Suarez put the home side ahead after just 19 minutes; Messi made it 2-0 in the 53rd; Suarez grabbed another to complete the scoring six minutes later.

That’s six straight league victories for Barca, and seven straight without defeat.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Levante

Atleti have prevailed as the main — if not only — formidable title challengers to Barca, now five points clear of third-place Sevilla and fourth-place Real Madrid. Alas, the same gap still exists between themselves and the defending champions.

All Diego Simeone’s side can do is keep winning and hope that Barca slip up somewhere along the way. Sunday’s home clash with 11th-place Levante was something of a grind, but Antoine Griezmann’s 57th-minute penalty kick was just enough to extend Los Rojiblancos‘ unbeaten run to 16 games. The trouble, of course, is that they have dropped points in seven of them.

Real Betis 1-2 Real Madrid

Dreams of the title have long since gone for the other Madrid — probably — as their attention should now turn to a full-on rebuild of an aging squad. In the meantime, Los Blancos are still made up of a number of world-class players. Take, for instance, 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric, who scored one of the best goals of his brilliant career on Sunday.

Betis equalized in the 67th minute, though, setting the stage for one of the club’s former favorites, Dani Ceballos, to break the home fans’ hearts in the 88th.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Girona 1-1 Alaves (Saturday)
Villarreal 1-2 Getafe (Saturday)
Leganes 1-0 Huesca (Saturday)
Valencia 1-1 Real Valladolid (Saturday)
Athletic Bilbao 2-0 Sevilla

Kroos out for about three weeks because of muscle injury

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MADRID — Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos will be sidelined for about three weeks because of a muscle injury.

The club says tests on Monday showed Kroos sustained a tear of the adductor muscle in his left leg on Sunday in the home loss to Real Sociedad.

[ MORE: Wolves-LFC recap ]

The German player had to be replaced late in the game at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Kroos was added to an injury list that already includes Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Mariano Diaz.

Madrid dropped to fifth place in the Spanish league with the 2-0 defeat to Real Sociedad.

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