Real Madrid kicked off 2014 with an eventually comfortable and potentially vital 3-0 win over Celta Vigo at the Bernabeu to move back to within five points of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Celta wasted a clear chance in each half to take the lead as Madrid struggled to find their fluency in the final third for much of the encounter. The crucial breakthrough finally arrived when Karim Benzema finished from close range midway through the second period after good work from key substitute Jese Rodriguez. Cristiano Ronaldo then scored twice in the remaining 10 minutes to take his career tally to an extraordinary 400 and pay a fitting tribute to his legendary fellow-Portuguese Eusebio.
With La Liga’s top two set to meet at the weekend, Madrid know that they will make up ground on at least one, and possibly both, of the sides above them in the title race. Coach Carlo Ancelotti will be delighted, therefore, that his side have remained within striking distance with their seventh win in their last eight Primera Division matches.
It was far from straightforward, however, and Celta can be disappointed that their battle to move clear of the relegation zone went unaided having been in contention for much of the match before fading late on. That frustration will be particularly felt by their coach Luis Enrique, whose move to Barcelona from Real Madrid as a player led to predictable but unsavory abuse from sections of the Bernabeu crowd.
His team began in a way that suggested his team might rile the home crowd further. Despite being just one point above the drop zone, Celta were counter-attacking with vigor and could and, indeed, should have been in front just six minutes in. A simple long ball over the top exposed Madrid’s pitiful attempt to play offside and sent Charles clear through on goal but Diego Lopez was able to get the merest of touches to his shot to turn it wide.
After that early scare, Madrid assumed control as Celta sat back into their containment plan. While Celta were well organized, the home side were wasteful on the numerous occasions they got into the final third. It wasn’t until the 40th minute that they registered a shot on target when perhaps the biggest culprit, Angel di Maria, saw an effort comfortably saved by the underworked Yoel.
Asier Illarramendi replaced Xabi Alonso, who Ancelotti said afterward was still feeling the effects of a burst eardrum, for the start of the second half, yet still Real Madrid struggled to find their way through the Celta defense. They should have done so when, after a typically incisive Madrid counter attack, Di Maria had several options for a final pass but instead laid the ball straight into the hands of the Celta goalkeeper.
As in the first half, it was Celta that created the first clear chance of the period and once more they were left to rue the profligacy of their joint leading scorer in La Liga this season. This time set up by the man on loan from Barcelona, Rafinha, Charles again had only Lopez to beat, but, with Madrid’s goalkeeper stranded on the edge of the box, his attempted dink went feebly wide.
It was almost immediately to prove costly. Madrid’s spark came with the introduction of Jese off the bench. Having scored the winner against Valencia at the end of last year, the young forward narrowly missed out on supplying Benzema with a low ball across goal. Just moments later the same play would reap dividends. Receiving a cross at the back post he struck across, rather than at, goal and this time Benzema just got a foot to it to send the ball looping into the far corner to the relief of the vast majority inside the Bernabeu.
Predictably, the first goal took the stuffing out of Celta and allowed Madrid to relax. With eight minutes remaining the points were made safe. Benzema narrowly missed getting onto to the end of a dangerous cross by Daniel Carvajal to snap up his second goal, but Ronaldo was on hand behind him to slide in and apply the finishing touch from close range. Ronaldo then grabbed his second and 20th in the league this season deep into injury time as he tucked away a pull back from substitute Gareth Bale.