A brilliant back-heeled pass by Karim Benzema on Sunday helped Real Madrid take a step toward reclaiming the Spanish title with a 1-0 win at RCD Espanyol.
With Espanyol about to make it to halftime with a clean sheet, Benzema cleverly unlocked the hosts’ defense. He used a no-look pass with his heel to poke the ball through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa and meet Casemiro’s move into the heart of the penalty area.
Casemiro’s resulting goal and some flawless defending were all Madrid needed to win and move ahead of Barcelona by two points at the top of La Liga.
“I see things, that is what football is to me,” Benzema said. “The assist is good, but Casemiro puts it in and gave us the three points. [The win] is very important. I won’t say that we don’t pay attention to Barca, of course we do, but we are focused on our matches and each game left is a final for us.”
Zinedine Zidane’s team took advantage of Barcelona’s 2-2 draw at RC Celta de Vigo on Saturday by securing a fifth straight win since the league resumed following the three-month COVID-19 suspension.
Espanyol hung on in the match until Benzema and Casemiro combined to decide the contest between a trophy-chasing powerhouse and a team needing a miracle to avoid relegation.
Espanyol’s biggest weapon was China forward Wu Lei, whose speed produced two promising attacks early on.
Madrid defender Dani Carvajal blocked a strike by Sergi Darder three minutes into the game when Wu found him with a low cross, but Madrid proved the more dangerous side throughout.
Casemiro forced goalkeeper Diego Lopez to palm his lob from Madrid’s own half over the bar, before Benzema tested him with a powerful shot in the 36th minute.
Lopez was helpless in the 45th minute when Benzema set up Casemiro and the hosts never looked like recovering.
“The goal is Karim’s,” Casemiro said. “I know how talented he is from years of playing together. He heard me ask for the ball in the open space. The goal is 90 percent his.”
Espanyol were coached by sports director Francisco Rufete, a former player who stepped in after the club fired Abelardo Fernandez on Saturday.
Elsewhere, Paco Alcacer and Gerard Moreno scored two superb goals to help Villarreal beat regional rivals Valencia 2-0 and stay in the fight for a UEFA Champions League spot.
Moreno passed for Alcacer to execute an excellent volley and give Villarreal a 14th-minute lead.
Moreno added a second goal just before halftime off a brilliant pass from Santi Cazorla in an impressive team move. Cazorla used a subtle touch to cushion a long ball lobbed forward by his goalkeeper and kept it aloft for Moreno to smash home.
Villarreal are one of the hottest sides in the league since play resumed. Javier Calleja’s team have earned 13 of a possible 15 points since the restart and are three points from fourth place and the final Champions League place.
Villarreal have kept a clean sheet in those four wins.
“The biggest change for our team from before the stoppage has been our improvement in defense,” Calleja said. “All our players get along well and they are helping each other out on the pitch. We are close to the Champions League and don’t put any limits on what we can aspire to.”
Valencia are among the worst performers since the resumption having won four of 15 points and they are eight points behind fourth-placed Sevilla.
Sociedad Deportiva Eibar’s 2-1 win at Granada moved the Basque Country club further away from the relegation zone, while midtable Levante UD defeated Real Betis Balompie 4-2.
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