Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema produced an audacious back-heeled assist for Casemiro to score as they beat Espanyol 1-0 away on Sunday to capitalise on Barcelona’s slip-up a day earlier and move two points clear at the top of La Liga.
Brazilian midfielder Casemiro slid to the ground to guide the ball home on the stroke of halftime after being played in by a stroke of genius from Benzema, who dragged the ball through the legs of his marker Bernardo Espinosa to find his team mate.
Casemiro ran straight to Frenchman Benzema to thank him for the pass and dedicated the goal to him.
“The goal belongs to Karim. We’re used to the quality he brings to his play and I had to celebrate it with him because it was all down to him,” Casemiro said.
“We know how good he is and that’s why I called for the ball as I knew he would lay the ball off to me.”
Coach Zinedine Zidane added: “I’m not surprised by what Karim did at all, he is a player who keeps inventing things on the pitch and his control and backheel was super. It might be the best piece of play of the season.”
Real’s players embraced each other when the final whistle arrived to signal a fifth consecutive victory which took them top on 71 points after 32 games. Barca, who were held to a 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo on Saturday, are second on 69.
Espanyol, playing their first game under caretaker Francisco Rufete after he became their fourth manager of a troubling campaign, remain rooted to the bottom on 24 points.
Casemiro was Real’s most dangerous player and nearly opened the scoring early on with a wild shot from his own half which forced Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez to scramble back towards his line and push the ball away.
Casemiro then somehow missed the target with a header when he appeared unmarked from close range, but he soon made amends thanks to the quick-thinking of Benzema.
“This is how I see football and I could see Casemiro arriving,” added Benzema. “It was a nice assist but the goal was more important, Casemiro did well and got us three important points after a very difficult game.”
Real looked in control for most of the match but had to endure two nervy moments in the final stages.
Espanyol’s Espinosa was inches away from connecting with a ball which flashed across the face of goal while Real defender Marcelo was forced to block a shot in added time which he almost deflected into his own net but the ball skidded wide.
Eibar open up gap on bottom three, Villarreal beat Valencia
Eibar edged closer to La Liga survival by beating Granada 2-1 away on Sunday and further diminishing the hopes of the current bottom three sides of staying up.
Kike Garcia struck the winning goal in the 69th minute to restore Eibar’s lead after Granada forward Roberto Soldado had cancelled out Pablo de Blasis’ opening goal, giving the Basques only their second victory on the road this season.
Eibar started the day in the final spot outside the relegation zone but the win took them up to 15th on 35 points, nine above the relegation zone with six matches left.
The result means that third-bottom Real Mallorca are eight points from the safety zone, while 19th-placed Leganes are nine adrift and bottom side Espanyol 10.
Levante effectively sealed their top-flight status with a thumping 4-2 win at home to Real Betis to move up to 12th on 41 points. Betis were left 13th on 37, 11 above the bottom three.
Villarreal beat neighbours Valencia 2-0 with a pair of brilliant volleyed goals in the first half to boost their chances of a top-four finish, while further crushing their rivals hopes of returning to the Champions League.
Former Valencia forward Paco Alcacer opened the scoring with a superb volley on the turn in the 14th minute but opted against celebrating against the club where he began his career.
Alcacer’s strike partner Gerard Moreno scored an even better goal to double the lead in the 44th, as goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo launched the ball upfield and Santi Cazorla controlled it in the air with an irresistible touch before Moreno’s ferocious volley.
Villarreal are among the top three form teams in the league since the season returned after the three-month new coronavirus stoppage and this was their fourth victory since the restart, a record matched only by Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.
The result took them up to fifth on 51 points, within three of fourth-placed Sevilla with six games remaining in the season.
“If we keep playing like we are at the moment we can compete with anyone,” said goalscorer Alcacer.
By contrast, Valencia have picked up just four points since the campaign resumed and were left eighth in the table on 46, while they are without an away win in the league since December.
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