Real edge out gritty Espanyol

Madrid side three points adrift of holders

Real Madrid closed to within three points of La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the halfway stage of the season when a Pepe header secured a laboured 1-0 win at mid-table Espanyol on Sunday.

Barca and Atletico drew 0-0 in Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash at the Calderon and Real took full advantage to move on to 47 points from 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 Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema well below their best.

It was left to Ronaldo’s Portugal team-mate Pepe to grab the only goal of a tepid contest when the centre-back was left unmarked in the 55th minute and headed a Luka Modric free-kick into the net. Espanyol barely troubled Real ’keeper Diego Lopez and Real should have doubled their lead late on when 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 any chance of winning the title.

Real lost 1-0 at home to Atletico in September and went down 2-1 at Barcelona in October’s ‘Clasico’ and also drew at Osasuna and Villarreal.

The woes of bottom side Real Betis deepened when they were beaten 2-1 at home to Osasuna as both sides had a player sent off and Betis forward Ruben Castro missed a penalty. Rayo Vallecano, one place above Betis in 19th, pulled five points clear of the struggling Seville-based side, level on 16 with Real Valladolid, thanks to a 1-0 win at Madrid-based rivals Getafe.

Malaga’s stuttering season continued under German coach Bernd Schuster, who replaced Manuel Pellegrini when the Chilean moved to Manchester City at the end of last season, when they lost 1-0 at Levante.

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