MADRID (Reuters) - Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 22nd La Liga goal of the season to set Real Madrid up for a 2-0 win at home to Granada on Saturday that lifted them above Barcelona and Atletico Madrid to the top of the table.
Barca and Atletico, who play on Sunday, have drawn their last two outings including a 0-0 stalemate between the pair at the Calderon stadium in Madrid this month that allowed Real to close the gap in the three-horse title race.
Saturday’s laboured victory at the Bernabeu was Real’s fifth in a row in La Liga since a 2-2 draw at Osasuna in December.
France forward Karim Benzema was also on target as Carlo Ancelotti’s in-form side moved on to 53 points from 21 matches.
Barca and Atletico have 51 points ahead of their games on Sunday at home to 15th-placed Malaga and at second from bottom Rayo Vallecano respectively.
After a shaky start to the campaign, Real have tightened up their defence and have not conceded in four straight league games.
The start of their impressive run, which has also seen them qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League and put them on the brink of a place in the semi-finals of the King’s Cup, coincided with the return from injury of Xabi Alonso.
The 32-year-old Spain midfielder, who dictates play from his central position, has brought stability and control to Real’s game and they are playing with more freedom and confidence.
”We are where we want to be,“ Alonso told Spanish television. ”But we have to keep improving, correcting things and making progress.
“We have to carry on in the same vein,” added the former Liverpool man who this month extended his contract with Real until at least 2016.
“We struggled a lot in the first half and they defended well while they were fresh. We played with more intensity in the second but until the first goal arrived we found it very tough.”
Before kickoff Ronaldo showed off the FIFA Ballon d‘Or award for the world’s best player that he won this month and the Portugal forward came close to scoring moments before the break after a frustrating first half for the home side.
Luka Modric floated a cross from the right and Ronaldo connected with a spectacular overhead kick that forced a superb reaction save from Roberto.
Real struggled to dominate 10th-placed Granada but Ronaldo, who also had a free kick deflected on to the crossbar, made it 1-0 after 56 minutes.
He picked up a pass from Modric just inside the area and managed to squeeze a shot into the bottom corner despite the attentions of several defenders.
Marcelo skipped through and pulled the ball back for Benzema to add the second goal in the 74th minute.
Real’s record signing Gareth Bale took a painful kick to the groin in the eighth minute and was eventually replaced by forward Jese at halftime.
Ancelotti told a news conference the Wales winger felt a twinge in his left leg but was not injured.
Bale will be available for Tuesday’s King’s Cup quarter-final second leg at home to Espanyol when Real will look to defend a 1-0 lead from this week’s first leg in Barcelona.
Editing by Tony Jimenez