Karim Benzema’s extraordinary assist for Casemiro at the end of the first half handed Real Madrid an important 1-0 win away to bottom side Espanyol and saw Los Blancos move two points clear of Barcelona in the race for LaLiga.
Madrid and Barca had come into the 32nd round of the competition neck and neck at the top of the table, with Zinedine Zidane’s side in front thanks to their superior head-to-head record in the two Clasico clashes this season.
But Barca’s 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo on Saturday meant Madrid had the chance to go two clear and that looked likely against struggling Espanyol – especially after the Catalans sacked coach Abelardo Fernandez a day before this match.
Zidane picked a four-man midfield as Casemiro returned from suspension to start alongside Fede Valverde, Toni Kroos, and Isco.
And it was the Brazilian who had the best chances of a first half in which Madrid did not have things all their own way against a competitive Espanyol side led out by sporting director Francisco Rufete.
Casemiro’s first chance came following a corner when he headed over the crossbar at full stretch after a flick-on from Raphael Varane.
He then scored on the stroke of half-time, just when it looked like Madrid would go in frustrated at the interval.
Marcelo hit a long ball forward from the left, captain Sergio Ramos headed on for Benzema on the right and the Frenchman played a sublime no-look back-heel into the path of Casemiro, who smashed past Diego Lopez from close range.
The assist was reminiscent of Guti’s famous pass to Benzema against Deportivo La Coruna in 2010, which has gone down in Madrid folklore, and this time the Frenchman was the provider.
Benzema saw a volley from a tight angle saved by Diego Lopez in the second half and Espanyol were still very much in the game, albeit limited to long-range efforts from Raul de Tomas and David Lopez.
Zidane sent on Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo for Isco and Eden Hazard as he sought to insert some pace and imagination, but Espanyol continued to defend well and made Madrid work until the end for a hard-fought victory which takes Los Blancos two points clear at the top.
Espanyol, meanwhile, remains rooted to the bottom and their hopes of survival are slim as they sit 10 points adrift of 17th-placed Celta Vigo with six games left.