MADRID: Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio inflicted the latest blow on Atletico Madrid’s title defence after leading Real Madrid to a 2-0 win Sunday to keep their team comfortably at the top of La Liga.
Vinicius Junior again proved to be the difference for Real, setting up Benzema and Asensio in each half of the capital derby.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico entered the Santiago Bernabeu needing a win to rekindle their hopes of getting back in the title race, seven months after they beat out Real and Barcelona in a thrilling finish to the 2020-21 season.
But the commanding win by Carlo Ancelotti’s side opened a 13-point gap for Real over fourth-placed Atletico, who have a game in hand over their rivals. There is still more than half the season left, but the chances of Simeone’s team repeating as champions are fading fast.
“Real are in a ruthless mode right now. They reach your area, and they score,” Simeone said. “They deserved to win the game. I like how they play. They have strong defence, get out quickly on attack and are effective up front. They are having a great season.”
The leading threats to Real are now the pair of rivals from Seville. Sevilla are second at eight points back and having played a game fewer, followed by Real Betis nine points adrift.
“We are on a good run, the only problem we have is that the league is far from over. We have 21 more games to go,” Ancelotti said. “But I am happy with how we are playing. I don’t rule any [rival] out. Atletico have talent, commitment and character.”
Barca, the team that traditionally shares the majority of La Liga titles with Real, suffered another setback in their post-Messi era. A 2-2 draw at Osasuna left them in eighth place, 18 points behind Real. Barca have long known that a fourth-place finish to secure a berth in the Champions League is their realistic goal this season.
Benzema put Real on their way to a 10th straight victory overall in the 16th minute after Luka Modric intercepted a pass by Koke to start a counterattack. Vinicius set up Benzema by stretching Atletico’s defence with a run down the right before finding his unmarked striker with a cross. Benzema did the rest with a superb sweep of his right leg to drive the ball under Jan Oblak for his league-leading 13th goal.
Vinicius, the league’s breakout player, forced Oblak to make a one-handed save to parry a chip shot shortly after Antoine Griezmann generated Atletico’s only shot on target of the first half. Griezmann’s curving free kick in the 35th was saved by Thibaut Courtois.
Benzema, who was doubtful after missing Real’s last match due to a leg injury, was substituted by Luka Jovic at halftime.
Atletico improved after Simeone sent on Joao Flix and Thomas Lemar for Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco for the second half. But another counterattack driven by Vinicius settled the contest when the Brazilian found Asensio all alone to rifle the ball just inside the post in the 57th.
Barca’s nightmare week, meanwhile, ended in more disappointment as they conceded in the 86th minute to draw away at struggling Osasuna.
After losing at home to Betis last weekend and being dumped into the Europa League by Bayern Munich on Wednesday, Barca could only muster a point against Osasuna, who sit 10th and are now winless in eight league matches.
The deflation for Xavi Hernandez’s team will be heightened by the manner of Osasuna’s equaliser, coming so late in the game after two 19-year-olds, Nico Gonzalez and Abde Ezzalzouli, had set them on course for victory.
Instead, Chimy Avila drove into the corner to secure a draw for Osasuna that was as dramatic as it was deserved. David Garcia had earlier levelled for them two minutes after Nico’s opener.
Betis maintained their impressive run after a 4-0 rout of Real Sociedad, who remained fifth after a third consecutive loss.
Left back Alex Moreno scored twice and assisted Juanmi Jiminez for the striker to net his 10th league goal of the season and his sixth in the last four games. Nabil Fekir chipped in with another goal.
Villarreal beat Rayo Vallecano 2-0 at home.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2021