A brilliant back-heeled pass by Karim Benzema helped Real Madrid take a step toward reclaiming the Spanish league title on Sunday with a 1-0 win at Espanyol.
With Espanyol about to make it to halftime with a clean sheet, Benzema cleverly unlocked the hosts' defence. He used a no-look pass with his heel to poke the ball through the legs of defender Bernardo Espinosa and meet Casemiro's move into the heart of the box.
Casemiro's resulting goal and some flawless defending were all Madrid needed to win and move ahead of Barcelona by two points at the top of the table.
Zinedine Zidane's team took advantage of Barcelona's 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo on Saturday by securing a fifth straight win since the league resumed following a three-month stoppage as Spain fought the COVID-19 outbreak.
The title rivals have six games left. If the teams are deadlocked, Madrid will be crowned champions as they hold the advantage in head-to-head results.
The run-in seems tougher for defending champions Barcelona, who face third-place Atletico Madrid on Tuesday at Camp Nou.
Last-place Espanyol appear headed for the second division after falling 10 points from safety.
Espanyol hung on until Benzema and Casemiro combined to decide the contest between a trophy-chasing powerhouse and a team needing a miracle to avoid the drop.
Madrid proved the more dangerous side throughout. Casemiro forced goalkeeper Diego Lopez to palm his lob from Madrid's own half over the bar before Benzema tested him with a powerful shot in the 36th.
Lopez was helpless in the 45th when Benzema set up Casemiro, and the hosts never gave signs of recovering in a second half dominated by Madrid's possession.
Meanwhile, Paco Alcacer and Gerard Moreno scored two superb goals to help Villarreal beat regional rivals Valencia 2-0 and stay in the fight for a Champions League spot.
Moreno passed for Alcacer to execute an excellent volley and give Villarreal the 14th-minute lead.
Moreno added a second goal just before halftime off a brilliant pass from Santi Cazorla in an impressive team move.
Villarreal are one of the hottest sides in the league since play resumed in Spain with Javier Calleja's team earning 13 of a possible 15 points since the restart.
Villarreal, who have kept a clean sheet in those four wins, are now three points from fourth - the last Champions League place.
Eibar's 2-1 win at Granada moved the Basque Country club further away from the drop zone while Levante beat Real Betis 4-2.
Australian Associated Press