VALLADOLID, Spain
Real Madrid moved top of La Liga for the first time since October on Sunday
after grinding out a 1-0 win away at Real Valladolid to make Barcelona pay for
their surprise defeat to Valencia.

It is 16 weeks since Madrid last finished a round top of the
pile and it looked like a scrappy contest at the Jose Zorilla would end
goalless until Nacho headed in the winner with 12 minutes remaining.

Victory means Zinedine Zidane’s side pull three points ahead
of Barca, whose 2-0 loss away at the Mestalla on Saturday under new coach
Quique Setien could prove a turning point in a nip-and-tuck title race.

Madrid now have the luxury of hosting their struggling city
rivals Atletico Madrid, who are 10 points back after a goalless home draw with
Leganes earlier on Sunday, with a cushion next weekend, not to mention on the
back of a 19-game unbeaten run.

That streak included them drawing a game they arguably
should have won at Camp Nou in December and then lifting the Spanish Super Cup
earlier this month in Saudi Arabia. 

As Barcelona pursue a more entertaining style of football
under Setien, Madrid march on, gaining momentum with wins that based largely on
solidity and a stubborn defence. 

Their form has been even more impressive given the absence
of key players, with Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale starting only
four times together this season.

– Real march on –

Real Valladolid, who are owned by the former Brazil and Real
Madrid striker Ronaldo, are being drawn into a relegation fight after winning
only one of their last 12. They stay 16th, five points above the bottom three.

Valladolid’s Joaquin Fernandez was lucky not to be sent off
early on for a two-footed challenge on Rodrygo, which only earned him a yellow
card, despite the protests of Madrid’s players. 

Casemiro thought he had scored when he nodded in at the back
post but VAR showed him to have been just offside and Valladolid arguably
finished the first half the stronger. 

Thibaut Courtois made a good save to deny Michel and then
had to backpeddle to prevent Raul Garcia’s cross dropping in under his
crossbar.

After a scrappy opening 45 minutes, Madrid improved in the
second period as the lively Rodrygo tested Jordi Masip and Benzema twice should
have scored.

First, he failed to volley in an excellent Isco cross from
close range and then rose high to meet Rodrygo’s delivery but headed wide of
the post.

Valladolid were retreating and, in the 78th minute, Madrid
struck. Toni Kroos’ corner was cleared back out to him and at the second time
of asking, he picked out Nacho, who diverted a smart header into the far
corner. 

Nacho ran over to Zidane on the touchline to hug his
coach. 

There was a late siege as Valladolid came again in the final
minutes, the stadium erupting after Sergi Guardiola tapped in at the back post.
But his outstretched right foot was offside, and Madrid breathed a sigh of
relief. 

 

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