Liga - Real edge Espanyol to cut gap on Barca and Atletico

La Liga, Estadio Cornellá-El Prat - Espanyol 0, Real Madrid 1 (Pepe 55’)

Real Madrid closed the gap on title rivals Atletico Madrid and Barcelona to just three points at the top of La Liga with a nervy 1-0 win over Espanyol.

Pepe’s second half header was enough to seal all three points for Carlo Ancelotti’s men in a game Real Madrid largely failed to impose themselves on, with Cristiano Ronaldo turning in an uncharacteristically poor performance.

Gareth Bale was handed the start alongside Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria as Ancelotti looked to take advantage of the goalless draw between Atletico and Barca 24 hours earlier.

However, it was the home side that started brighter and Christian Stuani was made to rue a missed opportunity, directing a fizzing cross-come-shot wide of the target from close range.

Benzema was given the first sight of goal for Real Madrid but failed to make a full connection after striking a spinning volley towards goal from the edge of the box.

But it was Ronaldo who was afforded the first genuine chance of the match but when Benzema surged to the byline and squared the ball back into the box the Portuguese winger completely scuffed his shot, making hardly any connection at all.

After starting brightly Espanyol faded as the half progressed and found themselves pegged in their own half for the final few minutes of the opening 45, with Di Maria testing Kiko Casilla from long range.

Real Madrid should have found the net after 40 minutes, when Luka Modric and Di Maria broke on the counter attack but with Benzema and Ronaldo waiting for the pass across goal Di Maria rolled the ball behind them, much to their exasperation.

Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure as the first half came to a close, peppering the opposition goal with a number of shots, including a freekick that forced Casilla into an unorthodox save with his feet.

Elsewhere, the woes of bottom side Real Betis deepened when they were beaten 2-1 at home to Osasuna as both sides had a player sent off and Betis forward Ruben Castro missed a penalty.

Rayo Vallecano, one place above Betis in 19th, pulled five points clear of the struggling Seville-based side, level on 16 with Real Valladolid, thanks to a 1-0 win at Madrid-based rivals Getafe.

Malaga's stuttering season continued under German coach Bernd Schuster, who replaced Manuel Pellegrini when the Chilean moved to Manchester City at the end of last season, when they lost 1-0 at Levante.

Qatar-owned Malaga, who reached the last eight of the Champions League last season, are 14th on 20 points, while Valencia-based Levante climbed to 10th, one of four teams on 23 points along with Valencia, Granada and Getafe.

However Los Blancos finally found the breakthrough five minutes before the hour mark when an unmarked Pepe met Luka Modric’s pinpoint set piece delivery to head past Casilla.

The goal meant Real Madrid could take a more patient approach with their build up play but Ronaldo was made to rue another missed opportunity, this time dragged an effort wide of the target after latching on to Modric’s raking pass over the top.

Javier Aguirre, who took his place in the stands due to suspension, instructed attackers Pizzi, Simao Sabrosa and Manuel Lanzarote to come on as Espanyol looked for an equaliser.

But it was Real Madrid who continued to create the genuine chances, with Ronaldo shrugging off the challenge of two defenders before smashing at the near post, where Casilla was once again on hand to save.

Yet when Ronaldo was presented with a near-open goal he somehow managed to sidefoot his shot wide of the far post, with Casilla scrambling to get back to his line after saving Benzema’s initial effort.