Real Madrid keep pace with Barcelona in title race, but Benzema and Militao injury fears a worry

Valencia's Gabriel sent off for wild challenge on Vinicius Jr. (0:51)

Gabriel aims a vicious hack towards Real Madrid's Vinicius Jr. and gets his marching orders from the referee. (0:51)

MADRID -- Marco Asensio and Vinicius Junior scored two goals in two minutes in the second half as Real Madrid beat Valencia 2-0 in LaLiga on Thursday.

Asensio had an early shot saved and another blocked, before Madrid defender Eder Militao was forced off injured and Antonio Rudiger had a headed goal disallowed before halftime.

But Asensio put Madrid ahead in the 52nd minute, firing in from outside the box, and Vinicius doubled their lead two minutes later, racing from inside his own half to finish past Valencia goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili, before defender Gabriel Paulista was sent off for a reckless challenge on Vinicius.

JUMP TO: Best/worst performers | Highlights & notable moments | Postgame quotes | Key stats | Upcoming fixtures

Rapid reaction

1. Real Madrid stay in the title race, but at what injury cost?

A win for Madrid was essential here after title rivals Barcelona had beaten Real Betis a day earlier. Madrid dominated Valencia throughout, with Asensio and Vinicius eventually making the breakthrough in the second half, to take all three points and ensure that the gap with leaders Barca remains at five.

There was lots to like about this performance -- the two goal scorers were a constant threat, Dani Ceballos excelled once again in midfield, and Eduardo Camavinga showed his recent displays at left-back were no fluke -- but the sight of two key players, Eder Militao and Karim Benzema, limping off in the second half with apparent injuries left a sour note, to be sure.

Madrid have just made it through a hectic January, but the February schedule is no easier. After travelling to Real Mallorca in LaLiga on Sunday, there's the Club World Cup in Morocco next week, followed by LaLiga games with Elche and Osasuna, Liverpool in the Champions League, a derby with Atletico Madrid and a Copa del Rey semifinal with Barcelona, all to come in the next month.

Militao has been Madrid's best defender this season, and Benzema is, well, Benzema, who was the best player in LaLiga last season. The extent of their injuries will dictate how positive Madrid can feel about their prospects in four different competitions.

2. Vinicius Junior marks milestone with a special goal

It's now 200 competitive games in a Real Madrid shirt for Vinicius Junior.

The 22-year-old is the third-youngest player to reach that landmark, after two club legends: Raul Gonzalez and Iker Casillas. Since making his first-team debut in 2018, Vinicius has made staggering progress, especially in the past 18 months: transformed from a derided, inconsistent finisher to one of the scariest wide forwards in football.

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His goal here was emblematic of what he's become, turning on the afterburners to fly past defender Gabriel, before coolly slotting past the goalkeeper, and then running to embrace coach Carlo Ancelotti. It was one of the Brazil forward's best and, fittingly, his 50th goal for the club.

All eyes were on him from the start -- he began the game with an eye-catching gesture, wearing plain black boots to highlight the end of his sponsorship deal with Nike, before switching to another pair after halftime -- and he played a part in the night's final, decisive moment, too, his skill provoking Gabriel into a senseless, violent lunge that saw Valencia down to 10 men.

3. Valencia solidify themselves as relegation candidates

This performance and result cemented Valencia's status as contenders to be relegated for the first time since 1986.

This team are not, to use an old cliché, "too good to go down." With coach Gennaro Gattuso leaving by mutual consent, replaced by perennial caretaker boss Salvador "Voro" Gonzalez -- his eighth time in temporary charge in 15 years -- and with no additions to the squad in January, the situation is critical.

Exactly midway through the season, Valencia's 20 points from 19 games has them level with Espanyol, Celta and Valladolid, just one point above the bottom three. Voro has kept Valencia up before -- he did so when he took over from Ronald Koeman in 2008 and again in his longest spell in charge, replacing Cesare Prandelli in 2016-2017 -- but this might be his biggest challenge yet.

A squad that has been weakened, year after year, still has some quality -- Jose Luis Gaya at left-back, Hugo Guillamon and Yunus Musah in midfield, the veteran Edinson Cavani in attack -- but morale is at rock bottom and players keep making inexplicable mistakes, as with Gabriel's sending off.

They'll need to pick up points in upcoming games against Girona, Athletic Club and Getafe before critical becomes terminal.

Best and worst performers

Best: Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid

Scored a superb goal and tormented the Valencia defence all evening.

Best: Dani Ceballos, Real Madrid

Once again, his display was a convincing argument in favour of a new contract.

Best: Marco Asensio, Real Madrid

Frustrated in the first half but delivered with his goal in the second, just as it appeared he was about to be subbed off.

Worst: Gabriel Paulista, Valencia

Lost his head with an ugly red-card challenge and cost his team any chance of attempting to mount an unlikely comeback.

Worst: Edinson Cavani, Valencia

Anonymous, but could say he lacked service.

Worst: Samu Castillejo, Valencia

Offered very little in attack and didn't do much to help his side's cause.

Highlights and notable moments

The first half saw a Real Madrid goal from Antonio Rüdiger overturned by VAR because of a Karim Benzema foul on the play, leaving the teams scoreless going into half-time.

But Marco Asensio didn't take long to give Madrid their long-awaited lead with a gorgeous strike from outside the box.

Vinicius Junior doubled Real Madrid's lead in the 54th minute.

He took a long run up the field with the ball, and it appeared he only had a mind for goal.

The last highlight is more of a lowlight: Valencia's Gabriel Paulista inexplicably hacked at Vinicius Junior's legs with no regard for the ball, prompting a straight red card.

The dangerous play drew a strong reaction from Real Madrid players and a small scuffle broke out.

After the match: What the managers and players said

Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti on the result: "We didn't start the game like we did in the second half. The opponent pressed us more in the first half than in the second, and then in the second half it was easier to change the dynamic. An example is Vinicius, they put pressure on him at the start, then in the second half with his physical level made the difference."

Ancelotti on the injuries: "I don't think Militao will recover for Sunday, but Karim's looks like something light -- it's what happens when you play every three days with no time to recover."

Ancelotti on subbing off Toni Kroos (and Luka Modric) in the 66th minute: "He asked me to come off this time -- he felt a muscle problem. These two are such good professionals that they ask me to come off."

Ancelotti on Eduardo Camavinga at left-back: "It's surprising -- he hasn't played in the position much. He has a very effective partnership with Vinicius: When Vini stays outside, he comes inside and is dangerous, he's defensively strong in one-on-ones. He doesn't like it much but we like him in the position."

Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on the red-card challenge targeting Vinicius: "I don't know but we have to protect Vini. He's very expressive on the pitch, he takes players on and defenders don't like that. It's typical. It's his technique, his way of playing, we need this Vinicius to open up defences. I think he's been kicked a lot and today I'm glad that a referee has been brave enough to send him off -- the ball had gone, it made no sense, that has to be a sending off."

Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)

  • Real Madrid have five goals overturned by VAR, the most in LaLiga this season. The only team with more goals overturned by VAR this season in Europe's top five leagues is Milan (6).

  • Real Madrid's 12 LaLiga goals from outside the box are the most by any team in the top five European leagues this season.

  • Vinícius Júnior now has three goals in the last five games after a six-game scoring drought with Real Madrid in all competitions.

Up next

Real Madrid: Los Blancos return to LaLiga action again this weekend, visiting Mallorca on Sunday, Feb. 5 (watch live on ESPN+ at 8 a.m. ET), and then Real Madrid have a FIFA Club World Cup fixture on Wednesday, Feb. 8 against an opponent still to be determined.

Valencia CF: Los Murcelagos travel away to Girona for LaLiga play on Sunday, Feb. 5 (watch live on ESPN+ at 10:15 a.m. ET).