Pepe pounces as Real close gap on red-hot league leaders
Real Madrid closed to within three points of La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid when a Pepe header secured a laboured 1-0 win at mid-table Espanyol last night.
It was hardly a vintage performance from Real at Espanyol's Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema out of sorts.
It was left to Ronaldo's Portugal team-mate Pepe to secure the win when the centre-back was left unmarked in the 55th minute and headed a Luka Modric free-kick into the net.
On Saturday night, joint league leaders Atletico Madrid and Barcelona settled for a scoreless draw after Barca manager Tata Martino started Leo Messi as a substitute, gave him 45 minutes on the pitch, and told him "don't forget you've been out for two months".
It was still a hard call for Martino ("He talks, and the coach has to listen," as Zlatan Ibrahimovic once said of Messi's integral nature in Barca's attack). He had made his first appearance since returning from injury three nights earlier, scoring twice in four minutes of a Cup tie against Getafe.
Martino has been at Camp Nou long enough to know leaving Messi on the bench for what was the team's toughest assignment of the league season would be interpreted as managerial muscle-flexing, as well as confirmation of the club's caution about the health of their superstar. Had Barca lost, it would have been called an error.
Meanwhile, in Italy yesterday, Alessandro Florenzi's perfectly-executed bicycle kick inspired second-placed AS Roma to a 4-0 win over Genoa in Serie A, although it did them little good as rampant leaders Juventus won their 11th league game in a row.
The champions survived a difficult opening half hour and had goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to thank as they came from behind to win 4-1 at Cagliari and set a new club record for the number of successive league wins.
Cagliari forward Mauricio Pinilla scored and was later sent off for the Sardinians while Fernando Llorente scored twice for Juventus who have only dropped five points this season.
At the halfway point in the championship, Juventus have 52 points from 19 games, Roma 44 and Napoli 42, while Fiorentina are a further five behind in fourth.
Genoa appeared to have survived the danger when a Francesco Totti free-kick hit the wall but a defender lofted the ball into the area and Florenzi, with his back to goal, met it with a majestic overhead shot which went in fortuitously off the foot of the post.
Genoa's misery was completed with a bizarre sending-off for midfielder Matuzalem, who was given a second yellow card for gesturing to Roma fans as he was being substituted.