The goal of French strikers sets up a nine-point clear 1-0 victory against Vallera’s
MADRID: Karim Benzema proved the difference again for Real Madrid by scoring a winner against Rayo Vallecano to send his team nine points clear at the top of La Liga.
Atletico Madrid then backed up their outstanding performance against Manchester United in the Champions League by beating Celta Vigo 2-0 to go the fourth position, above Barcelona. Renan Lodi scored twice at the Metropolitano. Benzema struck a goal in the 83rd minute, his 29th goal of the season, it is enough to a scrappy victory at Vallecas but one that could put Madrid almost out of sight if Sevilla fails on Sunday to beat local rivals Real Betis. Betis is in 3rd position and has been in excellent form in recent weeks.
In the eighth match in a row, Madrid failed to score in the first half and this was their fifth game in the last six matches that has seen them unable to score more than once.
Their lot of creativity could prove problematic against more testing opponents, with a Champions second leg against Paris Saint-Germain and then the Clasico against Barcelona both teams are near approaching next month.
“We knew it would be a difficult game,” said Carlo Ancelotti. “We won but I’m not very, very satisfied.” Returning Benzema to peak fitness and form would certainly help and the Frenchman looked sharp again after recently recovering from an injured thigh.
Benzema returning to peak fitness and form would certainly help and the Frenchman looked sharp again after recently recovering from a thigh injury.
Also encouraging was his combination with Vinicius Junior, whose form has faded in recent weeks. “They combine so well,” said Ancelotti. “Real Madrid is lucky to have these two players.” A superb start to the campaign had Rayo in the hunt for the European places a few weeks ago but five defeats in a row have seen them drop to 12th. They pushed Madrid hard but were made to pay for a lack of quality in the final third, which Benzema and Vinicius ultimately provided.
Marco Asensio and Benzema both had early chances but Rayo was the better team in the first half, drawing Madrid into a scrap and harrying them into mistakes.
Casemiro was particularly out of sorts but thought he had given Madrid the lead, banging a bouncing ball into the net after winning an aerial duel with Alejandro Catena.
The goal was ruled out after replays showed he had pushed Catena in the back.
Both teams had chances early in the second half. Vinicius’ finish from six yards was blocked before Thibaut Courtois did brilliantly to deny Mario Saurez from heading Rayo in front.
Rayo tired and Madrid turned the screw in the last 20 minutes although Rayo had the best chance, Oscar Trejo and then Alvaro were both thwarted by Courtois after Madrid failed to clear.
The miss proved costly because moments later, Benzema was celebrating in the corner.
He started the move, threading Vinicius through in the box before continuing his run. Vinicius could have shot but tapped it to his left, giving Benzema an open net.
Atletico moved three points clear of Barcelona, who play the first of two games in hand against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Lodi, who provided a superb cross for Joao Felix’s goal against Manchester United on Wednesday, completed a remarkable week by scoring twice.
First, he fired in at the near post after some quick feet in the box and then he latched onto Geoffrey Kondogbia’s ball over the top and fired in a second.
“He is very dangerous, he can score, he can break but the most important thing about him is what you don’t see — how he gets on with his teammates, how he trains, how he commits,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.
Atletico has now registered two clean sheets in their last three games after managing none in their previous seven.
“The team has a different spirit, a different aggression, we are much faster in transition, more forceful,” said Simeone. “The results are coming.”