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REAL MADRID

Real close in on La Liga leaders Barça and Atleti

Real Madrid moved to within three points of La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atlético Madrid with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Espanyol on Sunday.

Real close in on La Liga leaders Barça and Atleti
Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

Atlético Madrid and Barcelona remain locked together on 50 points at the top of La Liga after a 0-0 draw at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday.

But Portuguese defender Pepe got Real Madrid the win they needed to close in on La Liga's leaders on Sunday.

The controversial player, criticized for his somewhat aggressive play, headed home a Luka Modric's free-kick 10 minutes after half-time to seal Real's win.

Cristiano Ronaldo should then have added to his side's lead on a number of occasions.

But despite their star man having an off night in front of goal, Madrid comfortably held on for the three points as Espanyol created nothing of note after falling behind.

"I am satisfied with how we played because we had a good balance, we played good football and kept trying to score until the last minute," said Real boss Carlo Ancelotti.

The Italian also hailed the importance of his side taking advantage of Atletico and Barca's 0-0 draw on Saturday to bring themselves right back into the title race.

"It was an important moment. We haven't had many chances to cut the gap because the top two teams have been doing very well so I am very satisfied.

"It is not normal to need 100 points to win the league, but this is the Spanish league and there are three very strong teams.

"To win this league you need 100 points and that is what we need to get. It will not be easy but we have the hunger and will to do it."

Espanyol had started on the front foot and should have been in front after just three minutes when Cristian Stuani skewed his header wide when unmarked just six yards out.

Thereafter, though, Madrid had the better of the chances in the first-half without ever completely dominating the game.

Ronaldo uncharacteristically fluffed his lines after Karim Benzema's fine solo run down the left had freed the Portuguese inside the area.

Espanyol keeper Kiko Casilla also had to beat away Angel di Maria's long-range drive and a free-kick from Ronaldo.

However, the visitors best chances of the first 45 minutes came just before the break when Modric led a counter-attack, but after feeding Di Maria the Argentine failed to pick out one of four available teammates. The ball eventually fell to Gareth Bale and his cross was headed just wide by Benzema.

Madrid did make the breakthrough 10 minutes into the second-half as Modric's free-kick towards the back post was powerfully headed low into the far corner by the unmarked Pepe.

For Ronaldo, who is expected to pick up his second Ballon d'Or in Zurich on Monday, frustration continued to build as he also dragged an effort wide after being released by Di Maria.

Bale was starting a league game for the first time in nearly a month and his looked short of match sharpness as he contributed little before being replaced by Jese Rodriguez 15 minutes from time.

Casilla produced a stunning one hand save to prevent Ronaldo once more as he bore down on goal and Ronaldo then somehow fired wide with Casilla prone on the floor having parried Benzema's initial effort.

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FOOTBALL

Black Lives Matter: Marcelo ‘takes the knee’ to celebrate Real Madrid win

Marcelo celebrated by taking a knee as Real Madrid returned from three months away following the coronavirus suspension by beating Eibar 3-1 on Sunday.

Black Lives Matter: Marcelo 'takes the knee' to celebrate Real Madrid win
Real Madrid's Brazilian defender Marcelo kneels on the field to celebrate his goal. Photo: AFP

After scoring Madrid's third goal in the 37th minute, Marcelo dropped onto his left knee and raised his clinched right fist into the air, apparently in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Madrid's win may have come at a cost as Eden Hazard and Sergio Ramos were both substituted early in the second half and were seen with ice packs strapped to them while sitting in the stands.

Hazard was making his first start since February and his ice pack appeared to be around his troublesome right ankle, which he injured in November and February, before undergoing surgery in March.

“We knew Eden would lack a bit of rhythm playing the whole game,” coach Zinedine Zidane said.

“He played well for an hour, he took a knock which was a scare but at half-time he said he was fine. He is happy with what he has done and we are happy with him.”

Madrid's win means they reduce the gap behind league leaders Barcelona back to two points after the Catalans thrashed Real Mallorca 4-0 on Saturday.    

Madrid struck in the fourth minute after a superb strike from Toni Kroos before Ramos tucked away Hazard's pass on the counter-attack.    

Eibar pulled one back in the second half through Pedro Bigas but never found the second to make Madrid nervous, despite a brief spell of pressure.    

Before going off, Hazard was busy, the Belgian involved in all three goals.    

His weaving run through midfield led to Kroos' shot and it was his effort that was cleared out to Marcelo, who drove into the corner.    

After a miserable opening season in Spain, it was a bright start for Hazard, who could now redeem himself by playing a crucial role in the run-in, if he can stay injury-free.

Perhaps even more impressive though was Karim Benzema, who linked up brilliantly with Hazard and was unfortunate not to get the goal an excellent all-round performance deserved.

Gareth Bale started on the bench but came on and could start against Valencia on Thursday.

Zidane is likely to rotate heavily over the next few weeks, with the games coming thick and fast.

New surroundings

Madrid's coach will also have been pleased to get off to a positive start in their new training ground home, which was the 100th different stadium to be used in La Liga.

They will be playing all their remaining home matches at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium to allow renovation work at the Santiago Bernabeu to continue this summer.

“We know the situation, it's all a bit strange,” said Zidane. “But the players are all champions and we have to get our heads around it.”    

Barca had needed less than two minutes to score against Mallorca and Madrid were only slightly later, as Hazard broke through Eibar's midfield and Casemiro set Benzema free.

The ball was cleared to Kroos on the edge of the area, who struck first time, sidefooting perfectly into the far top right-hand corner.   

Ramos doubled their advantage after starting, and finishing, a ruthless counter-attack. In between, Benzema and Hazard were involved again, the former picking out the latter, who generously gave Ramos an open goal.

Marcelo put Eibar all but out of sight before half-time as Benzema played through for Hazard and his shot spilled out to Marcelo to lash into the corner.

Eibar were better after the break as Edu Exposito forced a full-stretch save from Thibaut Courtois and then Sergi Enrich headed against the crossbar. 

Bigas did score after diverting in Pedro Leon's shot but Madrid held on.    

Earlier, Diego Costa scored his first goal since October but Atletico Madrid missed the chance to move into La Liga's top four by drawing 1-1 away at Athletic Bilbao.

Costa celebrated by holding up the shirt of Virgina Torrecilla, a player from Atletico's women's team, who underwent surgery on a brain tumour last month.

His equaliser came two minutes after the excellent Iker Muniain had given Bilbao the lead towards the end of the first half and neither side could find a winner at the empty San Mames, with Atletico defender Santiago Arias missing the best chance late on.

Diego Simeone's side stay sixth, level on points with Getafe and one behind Real Sociedad, who were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Osasuna.

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