Misfit striker Karim Benzema reminded Jose Mourinho of his talents on Sunday, scoring the 60th-minute goal in Real Madrid’s 1-0 win over Real Mallorca that cut Barcelona’s lead back to four points.
Mourinho said Benzema, a signing from Olympique Lyonnais for a 35 million euros (US$48 million), needed to step up his game and the 23-year-old responded as Real made it a perfect 10 home wins.
“He [Benzema] has an introverted character, but he has opened up and has the whole support of the dressing room,” Real Madrid captain Iker Casillas said. “He is young and has a lot of talent. It is a difficult January with lots of games and, apart from the Almeria game [1-1], we are doing well and getting good results.”
Barcelona had piled on the pressure with a 3-0 home win over Racing Santander on Saturday to go seven points clear and Madrid looked tense early on at their Santiago Bernabeu home.
Mallorca, who drew 0-0 with Madrid in Mourinho’s first league game in charge, had scored a meager eight goals on the road, but should have taken the lead on 13 minutes.
A quick counterattack saw Real Madrid caught out and Emilio Nsue’s shot had Casillas beaten, but the effort rebounded off the post.
Casillas was furious at his defense and had some heated words with Brazilian leftback Marcelo.
Marcelo almost opened the scoring himself with Madrid’s first attack, but his shot was deflected for a corner.
It was a poor first-half display from Madrid and an unhappy Mourinho responded with a double substitution, with Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil coming on for Fernando Gago and Kaka.
Cameroon striker Pierre Webo forced a diving save from Casillas minutes after the break which spurred the below-par hosts into action.
Madrid pressed and on the hour mark the goal came.
Benzema, at the center of a midweek row between Mourinho and Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano over the French striker’s under-employment, cut inside on to his left foot, before drilling in for only his second league goal of the season.
Mourinho has been trying to sign a striker in the transfer window, with former Madrid star Ruud van Nistelrooy, currently at German club Hamburg SV, the main target.
Benzema was desperate to convince the Portuguese coach of his ability and he should have scored again before Madrid almost paid the price for his misses in the dying seconds when Webo was denied by Casillas.
Villarreal moved back into third place with a 2-1 comeback win at home to Real Sociedad.
Italian international Giuseppe Rossi scored both goals in the 40th and 47th minutes to take his league tally to 11 as Villarreal made it 10 wins from 11 at home to go third, two points above Valencia.
It was the perfect tonic for Villarreal who were knocked out of the Copa del Rey in midweek by holders Sevilla.
Almeria warmed up for Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semi-final against Barcelona with a 3-2 home win over Osasuna to move off the bottom.
A brace from Argentine Jose Ulloa, in the 10th and 54th minutes, helped Almeria to their first home league win of the season as they moved up to 18th, with Levante replacing them at the foot of the table.
Almeria, one point from safety, now turn their attention to tackling Barcelona, who thrashed them 8-0 in the league, in the first leg of their cup clash at the Camp Nou.
Espanyol produced a sterling second-half comeback to down rivals Getafe 3-1 and move two points off the top four.