Real Madrid keep the pressure on Barcelona as Asensio again proves his value

MADRID — Marco Asensio and Eder Militao scored as Real Madrid beat Celta Vigo 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday to close the gap on LaLiga leaders Barcelona to eight points.

Karim Benzema, Asensio and Dani Ceballos all shot off target before Asensio gave Madrid the lead in the 42nd minute, turning Vinicius Junior‘s cross into the back of the net.

Militao made it 2-0 just after halftime with a towering header from Asensio’s corner to secure the win and maintain a degree of pressure on Barca, who host third-placed Atletico Madrid on Sunday.

Rapid reaction

1. Real Madrid win means LaLiga title race isn’t over yet

Madrid’s realistic title aspirations may have been greatly reduced when they were beaten by Barcelona on March 19, and they seemed to disappear completely when they lost to Villarreal on April 8. But with Barca dropping points in their last two games and facing in-form Atletico this weekend, wins like this mean Madrid can at least stay within reach of the likely champions.

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What’s more, maintaining league form is Madrid’s way of ensuring that they go into their next two priority fixtures — the Copa del Rey final with Osasuna on May 6, and the Champions League semifinal first leg with Manchester City three days later — in the best possible shape. As coach Carlo Ancelotti said ahead of this match: “The team is in good form and every game can confirm that. The objective is to fight until the end in the league and maintain our form.”

This wasn’t a vintage performance. The first half was stodgy, only livened up by Asensio’s late opener, and Militao’s header moments after the interval effectively ended it as a contest. But it serves to keep confidence high and the good vibes going, until the games that really matter come around.

2. Asensio a valuable supporting player

Marco Asensio hasn’t turned out to be the generational talent he looked like he’d become when he emerged at Real Mallorca, or when he joined Real Madrid back in 2015. But in the last two seasons, he’s become a kind of 12th man for this team, and a low-key important contributor in attack.

His goal here made it seven league goals in 2022-23, after scoring 10 in 2021-22. This season, only Benzema and Vinicius have more in the Madrid squad. If Benzema, Vinicius and Rodrygo are now clearly Carlo Ancelotti’s preferred front three, then Asensio, 27, makes for a handy back-up to step in — and deliver — in games like this.

It’s now three goals in his last four games, and he added an assist here with a gorgeous corner delivery for Militao’s headed goal, before he was almost involved in a spectacular third, his first-time flick from Benzema’s pass just missing its intended target. An ovation greeted his withdrawal in the 76th minute.

With his contract up at the end of the season, Asensio’s future is uncertain. From the club’s point of view a renewal makes sense, if everyone can adjust their expectations to accept the reality: this is a useful plan B. Bringing someone in to reliably deliver Asensio’s numbers — in limited minutes — wouldn’t be cheap either.

3. Veiga quiet on his Bernabeu audition

The focus ahead of this match — not least from us here at ESPN — was on Celta’s exciting young talent Gabri Veiga.

This was the ideal opportunity for the 20-year-old attacking midfielder to show what he’s all about and add to his nine LaLiga goals so far this season. Instead, it was a subdued showing, which ended with being substituted off after an hour.

There was just one moment of quality, a deft control and turn in the first half which left marker Nacho nowhere, before threading a clever through-ball for forward Haris Seferovic. Otherwise, Veiga looked frustrated and even a little annoyed at his team’s performance around him, sometimes lamenting a misplaced pass or poor decision.

Best and worst performers

Best: Marco Asensio, Real Madrid

A goal and an assist, and making his case for a new contract.

Best: Eduardo Camavinga, Real Madrid

Gets better and better at left-back, and allows Ancelotti to sneak an extra midfielder into the team.

Best: Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid

Contributes goals and assists, week after week. It’s now 16 assists this season.

Worst: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid

An unusually quiet showing. Played within himself.

Worst: Iago Aspas, Celta Vigo

Had a great chance to pull a goal back in the second half, and couldn’t beat Courtois.

Worst: Augusto Solari, Celta Vigo

Did little and was hauled off at halftime.

Highlights and notable moments

After the match: What the managers and players said

Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on the LaLiga race: “We’ll fight until the last game, until [winning the league] is no longer possible. Its a shame that we dropped points in some games, but with the Champions League games too, it can happen. We have to try to win our next three games and then we’ll see how many points we have. Our job is to keep winning to feel good for the Champions League. It’s important to end the season well.”

Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)

  • Vinícius Júnior has a goal contribution in six straight games in all competitions, tied for his longest such streak with Real Madrid and his longest in a single season with Los Blancos.

  • Vinícius Júnior’s 16 assists in all competitions are exceeded by only Kevin De Brunye (23) and Lionel Messi (19) this season.

  • Vinícius Júnior tallies his 37th goal contribution of the season (21 goals, 16 assists), breaking a tie with Marcus Rashford for fifth among players from Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions this season.

  • Éder Militão’s five headed goals are most in LaLiga this season, and the most by a Real Madrid defender in LaLiga since Sergio Ramos had 6 in 2016-17. The only players from Europe’s top five leagues with more headed goals this season than Militão are Harry Kane (9), Victor Osimhen (7) and Erling Haaland (6).

Up next

Real Madrid: Los Blancos head to Girona for LaLiga action on Tuesday, April 25 (stream live on ESPN+, 1:30 p.m. ET) before hosting Almeria on Saturday, April 29 (live on ESPN+, 12:30 p.m. ET).

Villarreal: Los Celestes host Elche in LaLiga on Wednesday, April 26 (stream live on ESPN+ at 4 p.m. ET).

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