Madrid (AFP) – Karim Benzema proved the difference again for Real Madrid on Saturday by scoring a late winner against Rayo Vallecano to send his team nine points clear at the top of La Liga.
Benzema struck in the 83rd minute, his 29th goal of the season enough to seal a scrappy victory at Vallecas but one that could put Madrid almost out of sight if Sevilla fail to beat local rivals Real Betis on Sunday. Betis sit third and have been in excellent form in recent weeks.
For an eighth match in a row, Madrid failed to score in the first half and this was their fifth game out of the last six that has seen them unable to score more than once.
Their lack of punch could prove problematic against more testing opponents, with a Champions League second leg against Paris Saint-Germain and then the second La Liga Clasico of the season against Barcelona both approaching next month.
A superb start to the campaign had Rayo in the hunt for the European places a few weeks ago but four consecutive defeats had seen them drop to 12th before kick-off.
They pushed Madrid hard here but were made to pay for a lack of ruthlessness in the final third, with Benzema and Vinicius Junior’s quality not for the first time proving decisive.
Marco Asensio and Benzema both had early chances but Rayo were 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 aeriel duel with Alejandro Catena.
The goal was ruled out, though, after replays showed he had pushed Catena in the back.
Both teams had chances early in the second half. Vinicius Junior’s finish from six yards had to be blocked before Thibaut Courtois did brilliantly to deny Mario Saurez from heading Rayo in front.
But Rayo tired and Madrid turned the screw in the last 20 minutes, Luka Modric curling against the crossbar, although Rayo had the best chance, Oscar Trejo and then Alvaro 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.
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