Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale again came to rescue by heading the winner in a 1-0 success at Real Sociedad yesterday that kept their La Liga title hopes alive.
Atletico Madrid substitute Antoine Griezmann fired them to a 1-0 home win over struggling Rayo Vallecano to also keep the pressure on title favourites Barcelona.
Atletico, who made several changes, are provisionally top on 85 points, one ahead of Real in second and three in front of Barca, who visit Real Betis in the evening’s late game.
Bale, who scored twice as Madrid came from two goals down to win 3-2 at Rayo Vallecano last weekend, again delivered when it mattered, nodding in Lucas Vazquez’s cross in the 80th minute.
It was the Welshman’s ninth headed goal in the league this season, more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues, and earned Madrid the points despite a frustrating afternoon against the side who beat Barcelona earlier this month.
With Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema injured, it was again up to Bale to lead the line, with coach Zinedine Zidane making five changes from the team that drew 0-0 at Manchester City in the Champions League semi-final, first leg in midweek.
Bale missed two early chances to score, firing wide from a James Rodriguez through ball and missing with a header.
He also squandered his clearest chance of the game just before the hour mark, failing to beat Geronimo Rulli from close range after a loose ball dropped into his path.
Yet Bale compensated by breaking the deadlock with 10 minutes remaining, leaping at the near post to glance Vazquez’s cross into the top corner for his 19th goal of the league campaign.
With top scorers Ronaldo and Benzema facing a race against time to be fit for Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final, second leg with City, Zidane was pleased Bale delivered again.
“It was great to see a player of his importance score a goal ahead of Wednesday,” Zidane said. “We had to suffer and that’s what the players did. We were up against a difficult opponent but I’m happy with the work we did and to pick up the points.”
Atletico coach Diego Simeone made seven changes to the team that beat Bayern Munich 1-0 on Wednesday to edge closer to the Champions League final, with only keeper Jan Oblak, Jose Gimenez, Gabi and Juanfran keeping their places.
Simeone was serving the first of a three-game touchline ban and watched his side struggle to break down Rayo.
The hosts created only one clear chance before the break, a low shot from Angel Correa that was superbly tipped away by Rayo goalkeeper Juan Carlos.
Atletico’s top scorer Griezmann was brought on along with Fernando Torres in the 54th minute and needed less than 60 seconds to have an impact.
The France striker pounced on a loose ball on the edge of the area and, with his next touch, smashed it high into the net past Juan Carlos, his first goal in five games in all competitions.
Torres squandered a chance to seal the win and Rayo nearly punished Atletico, who were relieved to see striker
Javi Guerra head over the bar after appearing unmarked in the box.
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