BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Vinícius Júnior sparked Real Madrid’s 3-1 comeback win over Espanyol in the Spanish league on Saturday, keeping leader Barcelona within reach before the rivals meet next weekend.
Joselu Mato put Espanyol ahead at the Santiago Bernabeu in the eighth minute. But Vinícius equalized in the 22nd and Éder Militão headed Madrid in front for good minutes before halftime.
Substitute Marco Asensio added a third goal in stoppage time as Madrid ended a three-game winless run across the league and the Copa del Rey.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team reduced Barcelona’s lead to six points before the front-runner visits Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Karim Benzema missed the game as he rested to recover from an ankle problem. Before the game, Ancelotti said he expected his striker to be ready to face Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday, with Madrid holding a 5-2 advantage from the first leg of the round of 16.
Madrid will then visit Barcelona on March 19 in a clásico that will likely weigh heavily on the title fight.
“It was a game we had to win at any cost,” Ancelotti said. “This week is important with the Champions League and the clásico, and now we can face it with good momentum.”
Ancelotti insisted his players quickly turn their focus on Liverpool. Even though his team has a three-goal cushion, the coach said the rematch of last season’s European final could be a game “full of traps.”
Espanyol, which was left in 13th place, took the lead when Joselu scored with a fine touch of his left boot. Joselu became the league’s second-leading scorer with 12. Only Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski has more with 15.
But when Madrid’s Vinícius got going, Madrid never gave Espanyol much of a chance to pull off the upset.
The Brazil forward looked hemmed in by Espanyol when he received the ball on the left side of the area. But a quick change of direction toward the center opened up just enough of a window for him to thread a shot between four defenders before it hit the post and found the net.
Vinícius’ eighth goal in the league and 19th overall gave him one more than Benzema.
Madrid pressed its advantage and it was only a matter for time before Espanyol gave way again.
Espanyol defenders were scrambling after a ball that Madrid quickly worked around its area. Then Militão jumped over his marker at the near post to head in a short cross by Aurélien Tchouaméni.
Diego Martínez sent on extra attackers for Espanyol in the second half, but it was Madrid that went closest to another goal when Rodrygo struck a free kick off the crossbar in the 75th.
Asensio rounded off the win after defender Nacho Fernández dribbled forward and set him up.
“We were in the match until the final minutes,” Joselu said. “We gave it all we had, but Real Madrid shows no mercy.”
DOWN TO EIGHT
Last-placed Elche grabbed a point in stoppage time when Tete Morrente scored to draw 1-1 against a Valladolid that finished with eight players.
Cyle Larin struck in the fourth minute for his fourth goal in seven appearances for Valladolid since the Canada forward arrived in January.
But Valladolid lost its hold on the game when Darwin Machís was injured and had to leave after coach José “Pacheta” Rojo made all his substitutions.
After Morrente scored, and Valladolid had two players — Roque Mesa and Martin Hongla – both sent off with second bookings.