BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Vinicius Junior sparked Real Madrid’s 3-1 comeback win over Espanyol in the Spanish league on Saturday, keeping leader Barcelona within reach before the rivals meet next weekend.
Joselu Mato put Espanyol ahead at the Santiago Bernabeu in the eighth minute. But Vinicius equalized in the 22nd and Eder Militao headed Madrid in front for good minutes before halftime.
Substitute Marco Asensio added a third goal in stoppage time as Madrid ended a three-game winless run across the league and the Copa del Rey.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team reduced Barcelona’s lead to six points before the front-runner visits Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Karim Benzema missed the game as he rested to recover from an ankle problem. Before the game, Ancelotti said he expected his striker to be ready to face Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday. Madrid holds a 5-2 advantage from the first leg of the round of 16.
Madrid will then visit Barcelona on March 19 in a clasico that will likely weigh heavily on the title fight.
“It was a game we had to win at any cost,” Ancelotti said. “This week is important with the Champions League and the clasico, and now we can face it with good momentum.”
Ancelotti insisted his players quickly turn their focus on Liverpool. Even though his team has a three-goal cushion, the coach said the rematch of last season’s European final could be a game “full of traps.”
Espanyol, which was left in 13th place, took the lead when Joselu scored with a fine touch of his left boot. Joselu became the league’s second-leading scorer, along with Getafe’s Enes Unal, with 12. Only Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski has more at 15.
But when Madrid’s Vinicius got going, Madrid never gave Espanyol much of a chance to pull off the upset.
The Brazil forward looked hemmed in by Espanyol when he received the ball on the left side of the area. But a quick change of direction toward the center opened up just enough of a window for him to thread a shot between four defenders before it went in off the post.
“We were calm enough to come back from a goal down,” Vinicius said after his team-best 19th goal across all competitions.
When Madrid had Espanyol scrambling again, Militao jumped over his marker at the near post to head in a short cross by Aurelien Tchouameni.
Diego Martinez sent on extra attackers for Espanyol in the second half, but Madrid went closest to another goal when Rodrygo struck a free kick off the crossbar in the 75th.
Asensio rounded off the win after defender Nacho Fernandez dribbled forward and set him up.
“We were in the match until the final minutes,” Joselu said. “We gave it all we had, but Real Madrid shows no mercy.”
DOWN TO EIGHT
Last-placed Elche grabbed a point in stoppage time when Tete Morrente scored to draw 1-1 against a Valladolid that finished with eight players.
Cyle Larin struck in the fourth minute for his fourth goal in seven appearances for Valladolid since the Canada forward arrived in January.
But Valladolid lost its hold on the game when Darwin Machis was injured and had to leave after coach Jose “Pacheta” Rojo made all his substitutions.
After Morrente scored, two Valladolid players _ Roque Mesa and Martin Hongla _ were sent off for second bookings.
Iago Aspas scored his 10th and 11th league goals to lead Celta Vigo to 3-0 over Rayo Vallecano. His second goal was superbly executed by a touch of the outside of his left foot to float the ball over the goalkeeper from a tight angle.
Justin Kluivert’s goal in the 74th minute gave Valencia a 1-0 win over Osasuna and helped to lift it out of the relegation zone. Osasuna Sergio Herrera goalie saved a penalty by Hugo Duro in injury time.