Sports Desk, Mar 20 (efe-epa).- Karim Benzema scored two goals and assisted on a third Saturday to lead Real Madrid 1-3 over Celta Vigo, a result that leaves the reigning LaLiga champions just 3 points behind current leaders Atletico Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane’s men improved to 60 points to push Barcelona down to third. Both Atletico and Barça have a game in hand.
Celta remain 11th with 34 points.
The Blancos were in high spirits for the contest in Vigo after beating Atalanta in midweek to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals.
And they had every reason to be confident facing Celta, who last defeated Real Madrid in LaLiga in May 2014.
Even so, Zidane said Friday that he was not taking Celta lightly and in the end, the match was closer than the score would indicate.
Zidane made one change from the lineup for the Champions tie, resting captain Sergio Ramos, who only recently returned from injury.
The coach’s starting 11 included Casemiro, who was not available against Atalanta.
The Blancos made a dynamic start against a sluggish home side, but Celta defender Hugo Mallo blocked a dangerous looking strike from Benzema in the 9th minute.
The Frenchman was not to be denied, however, beating goalkeeper Ivan Villar in the 20th minute with an assist from Toni Kroos for the 0-1.
Celta’s Santi Mina sent his header over the cross-bar on a corner three minutes later, while Vinicius Jr. was caught by surprise by a Benzema cross in the 26th and the chance went begging.
Real Madrid went ahead by two at the half-hour mark, as Kroos stole the ball from Renato Tapia on the edge of the area and passed to Benzema for the easy goal.
The hosts reacted and the pressure bore fruit in the 43rd minute, when Kroos gave away a free kick. Denis Suarez sent the ball into the box, where Mina was waiting to head it out of the reach of Blancos keeper Thibaut Courtois.
Celta came out for the second half energized and Real Madrid took refuge in the cautious approach that seems to have become their default setting this season.
Iago Aspas – still without a goal in 2021 – forced a good stop from Courtois in the 62nd minute.
Benzema could have sealed the win in the 78th after Villar lost the ball, but the Celta keeper recovered to spoil the Frenchman’s bid for the hat trick.
With eight minutes left, Aspas hit the post with a free kick.
Celta made three substitutions in pursuit of an equalizer, only to concede a third goal on the counter in stoppage time, as man of the match Benzema found Marco Asensio unmarked in the box. EFE dmg-apa/dr