Real Madrid were without Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale on Saturday but Karim Benzema stepped up again to ensure they beat struggling Espanyol in La Liga.
Benzema scored one and set up another in a 2-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Real wore an all-green kit to show support for this week’s Climate Summit in the city.
Victory means Zinedine Zidane’s side move to the top of the table, for a few hours at least, before Barcelona play later at home to Real Mallorca.
Espanyol, who have not won in six league games, stay 19th.
An ankle injury is likely to rule Hazard out of the season’s first Clasico on December 18 while Bale has a thigh problem and is also a concern ahead of that crunch game at Camp Nou.
But another excellent Benzema display will at least be of some consolation after he teed up Raphael Varane before scoring his 15th goal this term to put Espanyol out of sight.
“We’re talking about Karim a lot recently, in a good way,” said Zidane. “He’s getting older and that’s made a difference, his maturity.
“None of us are perfect. But he’s asked to chase and he does it. He’s asked to score and he does it. I can’t ask for more, only that he keeps doing it.”
Increasingly it looks like the winner of the Clasico will spend the Christmas break first in the table, with the top two pulling away from the likes of Atletico Madrid, who drew away at Villarreal on Friday.
Sevilla, in third, are four points behind Zidane’s side before they travel to Osasuna on Sunday.
– Vinicius praise –
The absence of Hazard and Bale meant Rodrygo came in on the right of the front three while Vinicius Junior was given a rare chance to stake a claim on the left.
Vinicius’ last start came in the defeat to Mallorca on October 19 and the 19-year-old, who has been out of favour under Zidane, impressed with a daring and dynamic performance.
“He always wants to score goals, that is his job, but we have to highlight everything else he did today,” said Zidane. “He had chances, played well offensively and defensively. And also after playing less recently. He has done well.”
Vinicius may now be given another outing against Club Brugge in the Champions League on Wednesday when Madrid are likely to rest key players given their qualification as runners-up is already guaranteed.
Vinicius looked eager to make an impact as he fired off an early shot from an acute angle and was then booked for a lunge at Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez.
Espanyol had openings on the counter-attack, the best of them presented to Wu Lei, who was making history as the first-ever Chinese player to play at the Bernabeu. His header was saved by Thibaut Courtois.
Madrid’s goal came in the 37th minute and from an unlikely source as Varane stayed up following a corner and Benzema found him in space after bundling through on the edge of the box. With his left foot, Varane stabbed into the far corner.
Vinicius might have made it two after tearing clear on the break but failed to beat Lopez at his near post while shortly after half-time Lopez denied Benzema, who had also broken in behind.
Benzema missed another chance from a Vinicius cross but finally got his goal with 11 minutes left. He threaded in Fede Valverde with a smart reverse pass and then continued his run, before meeting the pull-back and finding the corner.