Ten-man Real Madrid produced an impressive performance at Espanyol to win 1-0 on Sunday, cutting their points gap with Barcelona to five points.
Captain Iker Casillas was shown a straight red card in the second-minute for his challenge on Jose Callejon outside the box, though the Espanyol forward seemed to go down too easily with minimal contact. However, the referee judged it to be dangerous play and showed Casillas a straight red.
Manager Jose Mourinho immediately rung changes to his line-up and strategies, sending on reserve keeper Adan for Argentine winger Angel di Maria. The changes worked as despite having man-advantage, Espanyol was under constant bombardment from the visitors.
Marcelo gave Madrid the lead mid-way through the first half, powering in from a tight angle and they were rarely threatened despite January signing Emmanuel Adebayor missing three good chances.
The lone-goal proved adequate as Madrid took all three points to cut Barca's lead at the top to five points, since the Catalans drew 1-1 at lowly Sporting Gijon on Saturday.
After the game, Madrid manager Jose Mourinho backed the referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz despite his controversial decision to send-off Casillas in the second minute and praised his side for the win in one of La Liga's most difficult places to go to.
He said, We worked hard and played well against a very, very good team. Espanyol are a strong side and they are very difficult to beat, even with 11. Many people watching on television would have been expecting us to lose after seeing Casillas get sent off, but we won, we deserved to win and we could have won by a bigger scoreline.''
I don't know if it was a red card or not - I haven't seen it. But I like Mateu - he is a great referee and he lets the game flow.
Mourinho, who had wished Lahoz could referee all Madrid games earlier in the season, went on and praised the referee for his war against swimming pool artists.
He said, I stand by that. I like him because he doesn't have any time for swimming pool artists and in my team there are no swimming pool artists.''
Barcelona's run of 16 consecutive league victories came to an unexpected end at the El Molinon after Gijon surprisingly opened the scoring through the opportunistic David Barral who capitalized on poor defending from Gerrard Pique and Gabriel Milito.
However, they had to face a flurry of Barca attacks for the rest of the game. Despite doing all the attacking, the Catalans had former Gijon man David Villa to thank for as it was his brilliant chip which equalized the score with just ten minutes remaining.
Barca continued to press for a winner and came inches close when Pedro hit the post late in the game. However, Sporting held on for an unexpected point.