BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — It wasn’t supposed to look this comfortable for Real Madrid — even for a team which is nearly always a strong contender to win the Spanish league.

Not after Karim Benzema left for even bigger money in Saudi Arabia and injuries wiped out the heart of Madrid’s defense.

But Jude Bellingham took Spain by storm, Vinícius Júnior did what the super-talented Brazilian does, and Madrid’s backups rose to the challenge as Madrid clinched its record-extending 36th Spanish league title on Saturday with four games left.

Carlo Ancelotti’s team will now focus on trying to beat Bayern Munich to reach another Champions League final. The winner will play either Borussia Dortmund or Paris Saint-Germain.

Here’s how Real Madrid did it:

BELLINGHAM BOOM

Madrid hit the jackpot when it secured the transfer of Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund. He was given the No. 5 jersey of Zinedine Zidane, along with the pressure of having put Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric on the bench.

But nobody expected the 20-year-old England midfielder to adapt so quickly and become a lethal attacking and scoring threat.

Either slaloming past defenders to lead the attack or arriving at the box in a second wave, Bellingham struck 18 of his team-high 22 goals in the domestic league. He scored on his debut for a win at Athletic Bilbao and never looked back, finding the net in his first four league games and then also scoring in his first four Champions League group matches.

He solidified his status as Madrid’s new star by scoring winning goals in both Spanish league “clasico” games against Barcelona. He also scored in both games against upstart challenger Girona to quash its hopes of giving Madrid a run for the title.

NO STRIKER, NO PROBLEM

Benzema, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo, Raúl — Real Madrid always wants a big-name striker up front. So when Benzema left a year after leading the club to its 14th European Cup and the club could only bring in Joselu Mato in his place, its attack was supposed to suffer.

Ancelotti swapped his 4-3-3 for a 4-4-2 formation, played with a talented midfield led by Bellingham and Toni Kroos and left his attack to Vinícius and Rodrygo.

Vinícius thrived once again, despite being targeted for racial abuse from some opposing fans, and has scored 13 goals in the league. Rodrygo has had an erratic campaign but has still scored 10 times, while Joselu chipped in with nine more goals in limited minutes.

Eduardo Camavinga also solidified his spot as a versatile workhorse in midfield, along with Federico Valverde.

BACKUPS STEP UP

Perhaps the greatest surprise for Madrid, however, was how well its defense performed after it lost goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who returned Saturday, and defenders Éder Militão and David Alaba to serious leg injuries at the start of the season.

Andriy Lunin, a rarely used backup to Courtois, took and kept the starting job after Kepa was brought in as an emergency replacement. Antonio Rudiger showed his experience by becoming the team’s undisputed leader in defense, while Nacho Fernández also filled in nicely for Alaba.

FLAWED RIVALS

Barcelona looked to have improved its squad that won the 2023 title after signing Ilkay Gundogan from Manchester City and acquiring João Félix and João Cancelo on loan. But Barcelona had some painful defeats and was unable to compete with a Madrid side that has only lost once in the league through 34 rounds.

Atletico Madrid’s bid was derailed by nagging injuries to Antoine Griezmann and Álvaro Morata, while Girona had already far exceeded expectations just by getting near to the runaway leader.

FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT

If having Bellingham and Vinícius, who is 23, leading a young squad wasn’t enough to point to a bright future, Madrid is hoping to welcome the best forward in soccer this summer.

PSG star Kylian Mbappé is expected to sign for Real Madrid, potentially after the French champion faces Madrid in the Champions League final.

___

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer