Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 25th league goal of the season as Real Madrid maintained their lead atop La Liga with a 1-0 victory at Malaga on Saturday.
Ronaldo grabbed the game's only goal in the 23rd minute, cutting inside to finish powerfully after receiving Gareth Bale's lofted cross from the right. Both teams had further chances to score in either half, but Real held on to extend their unbeaten run in La Liga to 18 matches.
With the win, Real moved onto 70 points, six ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid. Barcelona sit one point further behind in third place. Atletico hosted Espanyol later Saturday. Barcelona will play at home to Osasuna on Sunday.
"We’ve had to suffer. (Malaga) pressed us in the second half, so it was difficult for us to get forward well," Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso said, per Inside Spanish Football. "We haven't passed well between midfield and attack. We couldn’t link up our play very well."
Alonso added: "They worked hard and we couldn’t kill the game. This is three important points, with a game less to play."
The result meant Real will head into next Sunday's El Clasico as league leaders. Victory over Barcelona on home soil at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu could give Real a virtually insurmountable lead on their rivals.
First, though, Carlo Ancelotti's side host Schalke on Tuesday in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie. Having won the first leg 6-1 in Germany, Real are in a strong position to continue their quest for a record 10th European title.
Back in the league, Malaga provided the latest challenge as Real sought to extend their long unbeaten run. Real thought they had won a penalty when Gareth Bale crumpled under Marcos Angeleri's clumsy challenge, but the referee waved play on. Malaga had a first sight of goal seven minutes later, but Roque Santa Cruz headed over the target from Noureddine Amrabat's cross.
Madrid then took the lead in the 23rd minute as Ronaldo claimed a fine goal. Bale lofted a cross to Ronaldo on the left side of the box, and after cutting inside a crowd of defenders, Ronaldo smashed his finish into the goal at the far post.
Leading 1-0, Real tried to build on their advantage quickly. Bale again picked out Ronaldo with a cross to the left in the 25th minute, but this time, Ronaldo's shot was saved by Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero. Ronaldo had another chance moments later but scuffed his shot off target.
Malaga responded with Amrabat's bouncing shot in the 31st minute, but Real goalkeeper Diego Lopez saved. One minute later, Real striker Karim Benzema left the match with an injury. He was replaced by Angel Di Maria.
Di Maria made an impact just before half-time, driving a spectacular volleyed cross to Ronaldo at the near post. But Ronaldo's header flew off target and Real carried their 1-0 lead into the break.
Real resumed the attack as soon as the second half began. In the 51st minute, Di Maria led a rapid counter, drawing defenders in before freeing Isco just outside Malaga's box. But with only Caballero to beat, Isco shot over the bar.
Tension arose at the hour mark, as Real Madrid's Pepe fouled Duda on the knee with a studs-up challenge. Duda angrily called for the referee to give Pepe a yellow card, but instead, the Malaga man drew a booking for dissent.
“It’s one of those things that happens in football and it’s a shame the referee didn’t see it clearly," Duda said, per Inside Spanish Football. "It seems cards were only going in the one direction."
Bale created another chance in the 73rd minute, dribbling to the byline on the right before driving the ball across the face of goal. Ronaldo was unable to connect with his attempted header, and Marcelo's shot at the back post was blocked.
Malaga threatened two minutes later when Santa Cruz flicked the ball to Sergio Sanchez, who volleyed over the bar.
In the 77th minute, Ronaldo sent a glancing header off target from a corner. Ronaldo then shot at Caballero in the 80th minute after being set up by Marcelo's cut-back.
Flavio Ferreira tested Lopez with a shot in the 84th minute, and Santa Cruz shot over the bar three minutes later as Malaga searched for the equaliser. But it wasn't to be, and Real held on for yet another victory.
|Real Madrid Player Ratings vs. Malaga|
|Angel Di Maria (for Benzema, 32')||8||8|
|Jese (for Isco, 63')||N/A||7|
|Asier Illarramendi (for Modric, 90')||N/A||No rating|
Malaga play at Celta Vigo in the league on Friday.
Real Madrid host Schalke on Tuesday in the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie. Real won the first leg 6-1 at Schalke. The Blancos return to La Liga next Sunday with a match at home to rivals Barcelona.