Real Madrid closed to within three points of La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid midway through the season after a Pepe header secured them a labored 1-0 win at midtable RCD Espanyol on Sunday.
Barca and Atletico drew 0-0 in Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash and Real took full advantage of that to move to 47 points in 19 matches, with the leaders tied on 50 and champions Barca ahead on goal-difference.
It was hardly a vintage performance from Real at Espanyol’s Estadio Cornella-El Prat in Barcelona, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema well below their best.
It was left to Ronaldo’s Portugal teammate Pepe to grab the only goal of a tepid contest when the centerback was left unmarked in the 55th minute and headed a Luka Modric free-kick into the net.
Espanyol barely troubled Real goalkeeper Diego Lopez and Los Blancos should have doubled their lead late on, but Ronaldo sliced a shot wide with the goal at his mercy.
Real coach Carlo Ancelotti said that with the top three teams unlikely to slip up more than a couple of times, his side would have to avoid dropping as many points in the second half of the campaign to have a chance of winning the title.
Real lost 1-0 at home to Atletico in September last year, went down 2-1 at Barcelona in October’s Clasico and also drew at CA Osasuna and Villarreal.
Real won their last La Liga title under Ancelotti’s predecessor, Jose Mourinho, in the 2011-2012 season with a record 100 points, as did Barca last term under former manager Tito Vilanova.
“This situation is not normal but this is the Spanish league where there are three very strong teams,” the Italian told a news conference.
Commenting on Sunday’s match, Ancelotti added: “It was a key moment as Atletico and Barca are playing well and there are not many chances to cut the gap.
“We started slowly and suffered in the first 15 minutes, but later we had a lot of chances and after the goal we controlled the game well. I am satisfied because I think the team had balance and played some good football,” he added.
Elsewhere in La Liga on Sunday, the woes of bottom side Real Betis Balompie deepened when they were beaten 2-1 at home by Osasuna as both sides had a player sent off and Betis forward Ruben Castro missed a penalty.
However, it was a good night for fellow strugglers Rayo Vallecano de Madrid — one place above Betis in 19th and level on 16 points with Real Valladolid — as they pulled five clear of the Seville-based side thanks to a 1-0 win at Getafe.
Malaga continued their stuttering season under German coach Bernd Schuster, who replaced Manuel Pellegrini when the Chilean moved to Manchester City last season, with a 1-0 loss at Levante UD.
Qatar-owned Malaga, who reached the last eight of the Champions League last season, are 14th on 20 points, while Valencia-based Levante climbed to 10th, one of four teams on 23 points along with Valencia, Granada and Getafe.