Karim Benzema’s goal put Real Madrid in a strong position to make the last four of the Copa del Rey after securing a 1-0 victory in the first leg of their quarterfinal with Espanyol.
Benzema’s header midway through the opening half in Barcelona was enough to secure a deserved victory on the night and an incredible eighth straight win all competitions. However, Carlo Ancelotti will likely feel a degree of disappointment that his side’s lead was not considerably more emphatic. While Ronaldo struck the woodwork early on, a series of chances, including one by the recent Ballon d’Or winner, were missed in the second half. Still Javier Aguirre’s side, who came close to grabbing an equalizer late on, will know they have a massive task to go to Madrid and overturn even the most slender of deficits.
Ancelotti continued to show his determination to lift the Copa del Rey in his first season in charge by selecting a strong lineup that featured just one change -- Asier Illarramendi in for Xabi Alonso -- from the side that beat Real Betis 5-0 on Saturday. Again it was a 4-3-3 formation that the Italian went with, as Angel di Maria continued to operate on the left side of a midfield trio.
It was the man operating in front of him, although as part of a fluid front three, Ronaldo, who was the focal point of almost everything Madrid did in the attacking sense in the opening half. He had the first real effort of the game, four minutes in, but his left-footed effort went wide of the far post.
The first real chance, though, fell the way of the underdogs. Forward Sergio Garcia, the man most likely to make something happen for the hosts throughout, provided a good pull-back from the byline and Pizzi should have done much better than side-footing high over the bar from 12 yards out.
It was soon Madrid that regained the initiative. They went even closer to breaking the deadlock when Luka Modric picked out Ronaldo on the edge of the box and a quick turn and shot from the Portuguese saw Kiko Casilla get the faintest of touches to take the ball onto the post.
But the breakthrough was not long in coming. From Alvaro Arbeloa’s cross, Gareth Bale did well to get up and provide a flick on at the near post from which Benzema reacted superbly to fling himself ahead of the last defender and power a header into the net.
There could have been more goals before the break, too. Ronaldo will feel he should have had one when he looked to be clean through on goal but was flagged for offside despite being inside his own half when the ball was played. Following Bale’s fine free-kick goal at the weekend, Ronaldo again deferred to the Welshman from a set-piece to the right of center. And Bale almost had the net rustling once more, this time with a strike full of power and swerve, but Casilla did well to help it over the bar.
Knowing that a goal was required if they were to have any realistic chance of progress when heading to the Bernabeu next week, the side who are mid-table in La Liga made a positive start to the second half. They came within inches of getting back on level terms too. Espanyol’s star man throughout, Sergio Garcia, did well cutting in on the edge of the box to open up space for a shot, but his curling effort went just wide of the upright.
That was to prove a false dawn for the hosts as Madrid went on the offensive and could and should have had the tie sealed by the end of 90 minutes. Ronaldo was one of the culprits, heading Di Maria’s cross down into the ground and up over the bar from eight yards. Arbeloa missed a couple of chances to get a rare goal when he was denied by Casilla on both occasions with just the keeper to beat. Also culpable was Benzema, who, when running though on goal, had the option to square the ball for Ronaldo but instead went alone and shot far too close to the Espanyol keeper.
Having survived that onslaught, Espanyol recomposed themselves and may well have had an equalizer as they took advantage of the space afforded them by their opponents’ attacking lineup. Jhon Cordoba came off the bench to provide a more physical presence up front and he soon had a wonderful opportunity. From Garcia’s through ball, Cordoba did well to get into the perfect position to pull the trigger, but he was denied by a fine stop by the Iker Casillas. The last hopes disappeared for Espanyol when a goal-mouth scramble saw Alexis see back-to-back efforts blocked in desperate circumstances.