MADRID: When Karim Benzema went down injured, Vinicius Junior and the rarely-used Luka Jovic stepped up to secure Real Madrid a 2-0 win at Real Sociedad and strengthen their hold of the La Liga lead on Saturday.
The young attacking players struck goals early in the second half in San Sebastian to give Real their eighth consecutive win across all competitions and leave them eight points clear of nearest chasers Sevilla.
Real’s victory came after Atletico Madrid and Barcelona were upset at home, leaving them further adrift.
Atletico trailed by 10 points in fourth place after the defending champions were stunned by Mallorca 2-1 in the capital.
Barca were a whopping 16 points behind in seventh place following a 1-0 loss to Real Betis, their first defeat since Xavi Hernandez took over as coach.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis rose into third place, right behind crosstown rivals Sevilla, who beat Villarreal 1-0 thanks to a goal from Lucas Ocampos.
The 33-year-old Benzema was forced off in the first half at the Reale Arena with what appeared to be a problem around his left hamstring.
Yet Real marched on without their star striker.
Vinicius’ 12th goal of the season came in the 47th minute as he weaved in from the left and played a clever reverse pass into Jovic, who held the ball up and turned it back to Vinicius, who drove in.
Jovic has endured a torrid time since joining Madrid for 60 million euros in 2019 but he could be given a run now in Benzema’s absence. After teeing up Vinicius, he stooped low to head in Casemiro’s flick-on from a corner for his first goal of the season.
Barca had won twice and drawn once since Xavi replaced Ronald Koeman but those results had exposed their ongoing problems in front of goal and that was evident against Betis.
Ousmane Dembele, who come on off the bench, posed the greatest threat while the 19-year-old Abde Ezzalzouli missed a golden opportunity to equalise late on, when the ball was cut back to him eight yards out. The youngster blazed over.
In the 79th minute, Betis had showed more composure to finish off a scintillating counter-attack.
Sergio Canales broke free down the right but the move appeared to have lost its momentum when Canales pulled back to Cristian Tello on the edge of the area.
Instead, Tello shifted the ball quickly left to the arriving Juanmi Jiminez, who took one touch before sliding into the corner.
Atletico’s defeat by Mallorca was even more unexpected, given struggling Mallorca had not won a game since the start of October.
Atletico striker Matheus Cunha broke through for the defending champions in the 68th, only for Franco Russo to head Mallorca level in the 80th.
Atletico fell into the same trap that doomed Barca, pushing too many players forward in search of the winner. Takefusa Kubo struck Mallorca’s second goal in injury time after Angel Rodriguez launched him on a solo run from near the centre line with a pass behind Atltico’s defence.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2021