BARCELONA: Karim Benzema struck two quick goals to lead Real Madrid to a 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao in a game missing several players because of coronavirus infections on Wednesday to send Carlo Ancelotti’s side into the winter break eight points clear atop La Liga.
As Real ended the year with a bang, city rivals and defending champions Atletico Madrid suffered a 2-1 reverse at Granada, their fourth straight defeat — their worst run in the competition since Diego Simeone took charge a decade ago, to leave them fifth but a yawning 17 points adrift.
A total of 12 players between Real and Bilbao missed the game after testing positive for Covid-19. That included Real midfielder Luka Modric and Bilbao’s Unai Simon, the goalkeeper for Spain’s national side.
Benzema started the scoring for the league leaders with a superb strike four minutes into the match at San Mames. He struck again in the seventh for his league-leading 15th goal of the season.
Oihan Sancet pulled one back with his speedy 10th minute reply which hit the woodwork before evading Thibaut Cortois.
Inaki Williams went close to grabbing an equaliser with a half-hour to play, but a defense anchored by Eder Militao held on to increase Real’s lead to eight points over second-placed Sevilla.
The outbreak on Madrid’s squad gave Eden Hazard, Eduardo Camavinga, and Nacho Fernandez the opportunity to earn rare starts.
“I want to highlight the players who hadn’t played much were ready to go, that is the strength of a team that wants to compete,” said Ancelotti, whose side enters the winter break on a 15-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. “Now to rest and get back those players who weren’t with us today... I think that we can have them all back after the holidays.”
Earlier Atltico’s shaky defence of their La Liga crown took another big hit with injured duo Antoine Griezmann and Stefan Savic absent.
Atletico would be more than happy to swop trajectories with Granada for whom this was a third consecutive win in front of their home fans and their fifth game without loss.
This was certainly not how Simeone envisaged the night before his 10th year anniversary in charge at Atletico.
What’s more his Portuguese striker Joao Felix had Granada on the backfoot in the second minute when his low angled shot got the better of his fellow countryman Luis Maximiano.
Venezuelan forward Darwin Machis levelled in the 17th minute.
Felix had a header arguably harshly disallowed as the first half drew to a close with Jorge Molina grabbing the winner after the hour mark for Granada.
“We are not getting the wins like we used to,” Simeone said. “Many times we won games we did not deserve to win, now we are losing games we deserved to win. Lapses in concentration in the little details is costing us games.”
Published in Dawn, December 24th, 2021