Karim Benzema again proved the difference for Real Madrid on Saturday by scoring a late winner against Rayo Vallecano and giving his team nine points ahead of the La Liga top.
Benzema struck in the 83rd minute, his 29th goal of the season enough to seal a sloppy win over Vallecas, but one that could nearly put Madrid out of sight if Sevilla fail to beat local rivals Real Betis on Sunday . Betis is third and has been in excellent shape for the past few weeks.
For the eighth game in a row, Madrid failed in the first half and this was their fifth game of the last six in which they failed to score more than once.
Their lack of punch could prove problematic against more testing opponents, with a Champions League return against Paris Saint-Germain and then the second La Liga Clasico of the season against Barcelona both approaching next month.
An excellent start to the campaign, Rayo was chasing the European places a few weeks ago, but four consecutive defeats dropped him to 12th place before kick-off.
They pushed Madrid hard here, but had to pay for a lack of ruthlessness in the final third, with the quality of Benzema and Vinicius Junior not decisive for the first time.
Marco Asensio and Benzema both had early opportunities, but Rayo were the better side in the first half, causing Madrid problems and making mistakes.
Casemiro was particularly confused but thought he had given Madrid the lead by popping a bouncing ball into the net after winning an aerial duel with Alejandro Catena.
However, the goal was disallowed after replays showed that he had pushed Catena in the back.
Both teams had chances early in the second half. Vinicius Junior’s finish from six meters had to be blocked before Thibaut Courtois did a brilliant job of stopping Mario Saurez from heading Rayo up front.
But Rayo was tired and Madrid turned the screw in the last 20 minutes, Luka Modric curled up against the crossbar although Rayo had the best chance, Oscar Trejo and then Alvaro were both thwarted by Courtois after Madrid failed to clear.
The miss turned out to be costly, because moments later Benzema was cheering in the corner.
He started the move and passed Vinicius through the penalty area before continuing his run. Vinicius could have fired, but tapped the ball to the left, leaving Benzema with an open net.