BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Another brace by Karim Benzema helped Real Madrid tighten the Spanish league title race on Saturday after the defending champions secured a 3-1 victory at Celta Vigo.
Sevilla got a last-gasp goal from its goalkeeper to salvage a 1-1 draw at Valladolid, while Athletic Bilbao’s match against Eibar was interrupted by an airborne drone.
Madrid moved past Barcelona into second place at just three points behind stumbling leader Atlético Madrid. Both Atlético and Barcelona play their games on Sunday.
Benzema struck twice in the first half from assists by Toni Kroos before he set up Marco Asensio to round off the win at Balaídos Stadium.
Kroos slipped a short pass through two defenders to leave Benzema alone to beat goalkeeper Iván Villar in the 20th minute. The Germany midfielder gave Benzema a second opportunity on the half-hour mark when he stole the ball from Renato Tapia near Celta’s goal.
Celta improved after its shaky start when its midfield piloted by Denis Suárez linked up with its front three. Santi Mina pulled one back with a header five minutes before halftime. Iago Aspas drew a save from Thibaut Courtois in the 62nd and the striker’s free kick hit the post with eight minutes to play.
But Benzema crossed for substitute Asensio to complete the win on the last kick of the match.
Benzema has scored eight goals in a six-match scoring run over all competitions. He scored in a 3-1 win over Atalanta on Tuesday to help lead Madrid into the Champions League quarterfinals. He got a brace last weekend to lead a 2-1 comeback victory over Elche.
“If you like soccer, then watching Karim is something special,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “Karim makes the difference and he knows that his teammates are important.”
Madrid moved one point above Barcelona, which plays at Real Sociedad on Sunday. Atlético hosts Alavés and needs a win after being held 0-0 by Getafe last round and being eliminated midweek from the last 16 of the Champions League by Chelsea.
Although it seems like a long lost cause, Zidane thinks that Benzema still deserves a spot on world champion France’s team.
For Zidane, Benzema’s 23 goals overall this season - many at decisive moments - should make France coach Didier Deschamps finally reconsider his refusal to call up the Lyon-born striker.
Didier dropped Benzema in 2015 after an alleged blackmail investigation over a sex tape involving France teammate Mathieu Valbuena. Benzema denies any wrongdoing. With France loaded with younger attacking talent including Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, Didier has not recalled Benzema since and the team has excelled without him, winning the 2018 World Cup. In January, a court said Benzema would stand trial on the charge of conspiracy to attempt blackmail.
Zidane said that while he is glad that he doesn’t have to share the 33-year-old Benzema with France, he doesn’t agree with Deschamps’ position.
“How could I understand that Benzema is not on the national team?” Zidane said. “What he did today was spectacular. I am happy for him because he is a hard worker and keeps wanting more.”
With time running out, Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou went up for a corner kick and was in position to fire home a loose ball after Valladolid failed to clear from its area.
Valladolid’s passive defending cost the hosts dearly in the final seconds of the match, when two defenders let a weakly struck pass by Óscar Rodríguez roll past them. The ball hit the post but stayed in play, and Sevilla’s Jules Kounde pushed it into the center of the box where Bounou was free to score.
“It was a tough match but we kept insisting and got our goal,” Bounou said. It was the first goal in the career of the 29-year-old Morocco ‘keeper.
Sevilla stayed in comfortable control of fourth place.
DRONE IN BILBAO
In Bilbao, no one was hurt but play was briefly halted in the 68th minute for the referee to retrieve and remove a drone that fell on the field.
Kike García canceled out Yuri Berchiche’s half-volley for a 1-1 draw, salvaging a point for the relegation-threatened Eibar.
Also, last-place Huesca drew 0-0 with Osasuna.
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