Cristiano Ronaldo scored his 22nd La Liga goal of the season to set Real Madrid up for a 2-0 win at home to Granada on Saturday that lifted them above Barcelona and Atletico Madrid to the top of the table. Barca and Atletico, who play on Sunday, have drawn their last two outings including a 0-0 stalemate between the pair at the Calderon stadium in Madrid that allowed Real to narrow the gap in the three-horse title race.
Saturday's laboured victory at the Bernabeu was Real's fifth in a row in La Liga since a 2-2 draw at Osasuna in December and they lead the way for the first time since winning the title in 2011-12. France forward Karim Benzema was also on target as Carlo Ancelotti's side moved on to 53 points from 21 matches. Barca and Atletico have 51 points ahead of their games on Sunday at home to 15th-placed Malaga and at second from bottom Rayo Vallecano respectively. "The most important thing is the balance the team has at the moment, that's the key," Ancelotti told a news conference.
"We are defending well and attacking well," added the Italian, in his first season in charge after taking over from Jose Mourinho. "There is always room for improvement and sometimes we need to increase the tempo but the key is the team's balance." After a shaky start to the campaign, Real have tightened up their leaky defence and have not conceded in seven straight games in all competitions, equalling their best run of clean sheets from the 1994-95 season. Their pickup in form, which has also seen them qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League and put them on the brink of a place in the semi-finals of the King's Cup, coincided with the return from injury of Xabi Alonso. The 32-year-old Spain midfielder, who dictates play from his central position, has brought stability and control to Real's game and they are playing with more freedom and confidence.
"We are where we want to be," Alonso told Spanish television. "But we have to keep improving, correcting things and making progress. "We have to carry on in the same vein," added the former Liverpool man who this month extended his contract with Real until at least 2016. "We struggled a lot in the first half and they defended well while they were fresh. We played with more intensity in the second but until the first goal arrived we found it very tough."
Before kickoff Ronaldo showed off the FIFA Ballon d'Or award for the world's best player that he won this month and the Portugal forward came close to scoring moments before the break after a frustrating first half short of genuine chances. Luka Modric floated a cross from the right and Ronaldo connected with a spectacular overhead kick that forced a superb reaction save from Roberto. Real struggled to dominate 11th-placed Granada but Ronaldo, who also had a free kick deflected on to the crossbar, made it 1-0 after 56 minutes. He picked up a pass from Modric just inside the area and managed to squeeze a shot into the bottom corner despite the attentions of several defenders. Marcelo then skipped through on the left and pulled the ball back for Benzema to add the second goal in the 74th minute.
"It was a special day with everything that happened and being able to show off the Ballon d'Or to the fans," said Ronaldo. "We will spend a pleasant night as leaders and tomorrow we'll see what the other teams do." Real's record signing Gareth Bale took a painful kick to the groin in the eighth minute and was eventually replaced by forward Jese at halftime. Ancelotti said the Wales winger felt a twinge in his left leg but was not injured. Bale will be available for Tuesday's King's Cup quarter-final second leg at home to Espanyol when Real look to defend a 1-0 lead from this week's first leg in Barcelona.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Villarreal's bid for a place in Europe next season suffered a setback when they were beaten 1-0 at Real Valladolid. Villarreal stay fifth on 37 points, two behind Athletic Bilbao who visit Osasuna on Sunday. Valencia and Espanyol drew 2-2 at the Mestalla stadium and Sevilla twice surrendered the lead as they lost 3-2 at home to Levante. Each side had a player sent off in added time at the Sanchez Pizjuan as tempers frayed. Sevilla are seventh on 31 points. Levante have 27 points in eighth while Espanyol are a point behind in ninth and Valencia are 10th on 25 points.