BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio inflicted the latest blow on Atlético Madrid’s title defense after leading Real Madrid to a 2-0 win Sunday to keep their team comfortably at the top of the Spanish league.
Vinícius Júnior again proved to be the difference for Madrid, setting up Benzema and Asensio in each half of the Spanish capital derby.
Diego Simeone’s Atlético entered the Santiago Bernabéu needing a win to rekindle its hopes of getting back in the title race, seven months after it beat out Madrid and Barcelona in a thrilling finish to the 2020-21 season.
But the commanding win by Carlo Ancelotti’s side opened a 13-point gap for Madrid over fourth-place Atlético. There is still more than half the season left, but the chances of Simeone’s team repeating as champion are fading fast.
“Madrid is in a ruthless mode right now. They reach your area, and they score,” Simeone said. “They deserved to win the game. I like how they play. They have strong defense, get out quickly on attack and are effective up front. They are having a great season.”
The leading threats to Madrid are now the pair of rivals from Seville. Sevilla is second at eight points back, followed by Real Betis nine points adrift of Madrid.
“We are on a good run, the only problem we have is that the league is far from over. We have 21 more games to go,” Ancelotti said. “But I am happy with how we are playing. I don’t rule any (rival) out. Atlético has talent, commitment and character.”
Barcelona, the team that traditionally shares the majority of La Liga titles with Madrid, suffered another setback in its post-Messi era. A 2-2 draw at Osasuna left it in eighth place, some 18 points behind Madrid. Barcelona has long known that a fourth-place finish to secure a berth in the Champions League is its realistic goal this season.
Benzema put Madrid on its way to a 10th straight victory overall in the 16th minute after Luka Modric intercepted a pass by Koke Resurrección to start a counterattack.
Vinícius set up Benzema by stretching Atlético’s defense with a run down the right before finding his unmarked striker with a cross. Benzema did the rest with a superb sweep of his right leg to drive the ball under Jan Oblak for his league-leading 13th goal.
Vinícius, the league’s breakout player, forced Oblak to make a one-handed save to parry a chip shot shortly after Antoine Griezmann generated Atlético’s only shot on target of the first half. Griezmann’s curving free kick in the 35th was saved by Thibaut Courtois.
Benzema, who was doubtful after missing Madrid’s last match due to a leg injury, was substituted by Luka Jovic at halftime.
Atlético improved after Simeone sent on João Félix and Thomas Lemar for Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco for the second half. But another counterattack driven by Vinícius settled the contest when the Brazilian found Asensio all alone to rifle the ball just inside the post in the 57th.
Luis Suárez, also doubtful due to injury, played the final half hour for Atlético.
TEENAGERS’ GOALS NOT ENOUGH
Goals from Barcelona’s latest teenage talents weren’t enough to save Xavi Hernández’s side from another letdown.
Barcelona was leading Osasuna 2-1 after 19-year-olds Nico González and Abde Ezzalzouli scored their first goals since joining the team from the club’s youth squads this season.
But substitute Chimy Ávila pulled Osasuna level with four minutes to go with a long-range strike that went in after touching Samuel Umtiti, who played his first minutes this season for Barcelona as a surprise inclusion in Xavi’s starting lineup.
Nico and Abde form part of a group of players under 20 years old, along with 17-year-old Gavi Páez and the injured Pedri González and Ansu Fati, which is providing the only bright side to a dismal campaign for Barcelona.
“Luckily we have our young players because they are holding the team up. They are making an extraordinary effort,” Xavi said. “We have to keep growing, but it is going to be difficult to get out of this rut. We need a favorable result. We had this victory and let it get away.”
The draw at Osasuna came after back-to-back defeats for Barcelona, which has only won once on the road in the league and will miss the Champions League knockout rounds for the first time in 17 years.
Third-place Betis maintained its impressive run after routing Real Sociedad 4-0, which remained fifth after a third consecutive loss.
Manuel Pellegrini’s high-paced attack has won four in a row in the league by a combined score of 11-1.
Left back Álex Moreno scored twice and assisted Juanmi Jiménez for the striker to net his 10th league goal of the season and his sixth in the last four games. Nabil Fekir chipped in with another goal.
Villarreal beat Rayo Vallecano 2-0 at home.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports