Liverpool closes in on Premier League title
LONDON (AP) — Liverpool secured a return to the Champions League on Sunday — but there’s a much bigger prize just around the corner.
What was looking like a gripping finale to the Premier League title race is starting to turn into a procession for the Reds after they beat Norwich 3-2 to move five points clear of Chelsea with three matches remaining.
Here’s a look at the action across Europe’s top leagues as the end of the season approaches:
A first English championship in 24 years is within Liverpool’s grasp after the win at Norwich, which was inspired by Raheem Sterling’s double and a 30th goal of the campaign by Luis Suarez.
An 11th straight league win also ensured that the Reds will return to the Champions League for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
Sterling crashed home a long-range strike in the fourth minute before setting up Suarez in the 11th minute for his 12th goal against Norwich in their last five meetings.
After Gary Hooper cut the deficit in the 54th, Sterling re-established Liverpool’s two-goal lead after weaving his way through Norwich’s defense before his shot looped over goalkeeper John Ruddy thanks to a deflection.
Robert Snodgrass’ 77th-minute header set up a nervy finish but Liverpool held on to put clear distance to Chelsea, which lost 2-1 to Sunderland on Saturday, and nine points ahead of third-placed Manchester City, which has two games in hand.
It is promising to be a tighter race for the final Champions League spot, with fourth-place Arsenal and Everton both winning to leave them separated by just one point.
Lukas Podolski scored twice in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory at Hull and Everton overwhelmed Manchester United in a 2-0 win that marked another bad day for United manager David Moyes, who returned to the club he coached for 11 years.
United can’t now qualify for the Champions League — the first time it will miss the competition in 19 years.
Leighton Baines and Kevin Mirallas scored for Everton in the first half.
Lionel Messi ended Barcelona’s run of three straight losses and kept it in the Spanish league title chase by scoring a late free kick to complete a 2-1 comeback win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Messi’s 75th-minute goal answered some of the criticism the club’s all-time leading scorer had received for his lackluster performances in the team’s recent losses in the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey final.
Barcelona was on its way to another defeat when Aritz Aduriz scored in the 50th, provoking a smattering of white handkerchiefs in the Camp Nou stands, but Pedro Rodriguez equalized when he slotted in Alexis Sanchez’s scuffed strike in the 72nd.
Barcelona moved provisionally into second place, four points behind leader Atletico Madrid. Madrid is two points behind Barcelona but with a game to play.
Earlier, Celta Vigo outclassed Almeria 4-2 as forward Manuel “Nolito” Agudo scored two goals and set up another to keep the hosts in the Spanish league’s relegation zone.
Also, defender Paulao scored an own goal and made a mistake that led to another as bottom-side Real Betis slumped to a demoralizing 3-1 defeat at Rayo Vallecano to sit on the brink of relegation, 10 points from safety with four games to go.
Dimitar Berbatov helped Monaco secure a Champions League spot with a 1-0 win over Nice in the French league.
Berbatov chipped goalkeeper David Ospina in the fifth minute for the only goal, as Monaco rebounded from losing 3-1 to Guingamp in extra time in the semifinals of the French Cup on Wednesday.
Monaco consolidated second place in the league and moved within seven points of leader Paris Saint-Germain, which has a game in hand.
Ajaccio was relegated after losing 2-1 at mid-table Bastia in the Corsican derby. Guingamp is under the threat of relegation after losing 5-1 at Bordeaux to lie two points above Sochaux, which won 1-0 at Reims to keep its safety hopes alive.
Valenciennes’ hopes of avoiding relegation took a hit with a 6-2 loss to Nantes and Lorient striker Vincent Aboubakar scored twice in stoppage time to salvage a 4-4 draw with 10-man Montpellier.
Bayer Leverkusen reclaimed fourth place in the Bundesliga with a 4-1 with at relegation-threatened Nuremberg and Stuttgart eased its relegation fears with a 3-1 win over Schalke on Sunday.
In Nuremberg, Emir Spahic opened the scoring with Leverkusen’s first shot on target in the 16th, only for Marvin Plattenhardt to equalize eight minutes later with a direct free kick from 25 meters (yards).
Omer Toprak set up Sebastian Boenisch for Leverkusen’s second goal in the 48th and Heung-min Son ran the length of the pitch after a Nuremberg corner for Spahic to seal the win with 10 minutes remaining. There was still time for Roberto Hilbert to add another in the 87th, as Leverkusen reclaimed the last Champions League qualification spot from Wolfsburg, which had provisionally gone ahead on Saturday.
Martin Harnik scored twice for Stuttgart to move four points clear of Hamburger SV in the relegation playoff place.
Benfica clinched its 33rd Portuguese league title by beating bottom side Olhanense 2-0 after two goals by Lima on Sunday, bringing an end to FC Porto’s three-year run as champion.
Benfica won its first domestic title since 2009-10 with two rounds to go after striker Lima scored in the 57th and 60th minutes at the Stadium of Light.
Benfica has also reached the final of the Portuguese Cup, and the semifinals of the Europa League and Portuguese League Cup.
Benfica and Porto have monopolized the league title since Sporting Lisbon last won it in 2001-02.