Benzema resting, Madrid beats Sevilla 3-1 to extend lead

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Karim Benzema proudly showed his Ballon d’Or award to fans at the Santiago Bernabéu and then sat back as Real Madrid beat Sevilla 3-1 and increased its lead of the Spanish league on Saturday.

Benzema was ruled out of the match when the club said he had muscle fatigue. It appears that the striker, who won soccer’s prestigious individual prize on Monday, is being extra cautious to avoid the risk of any injury that might jeopardize his participation with France at the World Cup in Qatar starting in less than a month.

Vinícius Júnior set up two goals for Madrid as the Brazil winger continues to excel both with, and without, Benzema playing by his side.

Madrid extended its unbeaten streak to 16 games since starting the season across all competitions and increased its lead at the top to six points over Barcelona, which plays Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Luka Modric and former Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, both former Ballon d’Or winners, handed Benzema his award in a ceremony before kickoff. The Madrid striker hoisted it high to receive the applause of fans, who turned out for the celebration and the match amid steady rain in Spain’s capital.

Modric then proceeded to ensure that Madrid did not miss Benzema’s goals, scoring from an assist by Vinícius to give Madrid the lead five minutes into the game. Vinícius pounced on a poor pass by Gonzalo Montiel near Sevilla’s own area, took on the backtracking defenders, and found Modric all alone at the far post to tap in.

While Vinícius squandered an opportunity to add to the lead in the 44th — when he tried to round goalkeeper Yassine Bounou instead of shooting from point-blank range — Sevilla was toothless with midfielder Isco Alarcón up front as a “false nine.”

Sevilla had its share of possession but had no strikers in the box to feed. In the 45th Jesús Navas drew the first save from Thibaut Courtois, who was back after missing six matches due to sciatic pain.

Jorge Sampaoli’s plan, however, started to click in the second half when Sevilla’s greater number of midfielders, including Óliver Torres and Ivan Rakitic, and playmakers like Isco took control for half an hour.

Montiel made up for his mistake by gaining possession and using the exterior of his boot to slip a ball through Madrid’s well-positioned defensive line to meet Erik Lamela’s nice run. Lamela also showed his skill by sending a ball around Courtois from a tight angle with the tip of his boot to equalize in the 54th.

Isco then hit the side netting and Montiel set up Lamela for him to curl a ball just wide in the 60th.

But Carlo Ancelotti sent on fresh legs in attack and a counterattack cued by substitute Marco Asensio led to Vinícius drawing in Bounou before he laid off for substitute Luas Vázquez to fire into an empty net in the 79th.

“Today I want to highlight the work of Vinícius,” Ancelotti said. “He gave two assists for teammates to score practically in empty nets. He should be pleased. Those assists are worth more than scoring goals. He showed a lot of generosity.”

Federico Valverde added a blistering third goal from long range two minutes later to put the result beyond doubt with the midfielder’s seventh goal in all competitions this campaign. His powerful shot sailed over Bounou and hit the net just inside the top of the post.

It was the first loss for Sevilla in four games since Sampaoli replaced the fired Julen Lopetegui. Sevilla fell into 14th place.

“We played against a rival that makes you pay for even the smallest error,” Lamela said. “We had a stretch when we played well, but it wasn’t enough. We are still adapting to a new coach, to adjust to his new ideas, and we need time.”

END OF THE RUN

Real Sociedad missed a chance to pull level with Barcelona on points after its eight-game unbeaten streak across all competitions came to an end in Valladolid.

Sergio León’s goal in the 16th and some staunch defending under heavy rain at the José Zorrilla Stadium gave Valladolid the 1-0 victory.

MALLORCA RALLY

Mallorca fought back 2-1 at Valencia after Edinson Cavani had put the hosts ahead with a penalty for his fourth goal in three games.

Vedat Muriqi, who had missed two matches serving a suspension, scored his fifth goal of the campaign when he equalized from the spot. Former Valencia forward Lee Kang-In completed the comeback in the 83rd.

RAYO ROUT

Rayo Vallecano central defender Florian Lejeune scored twice to lead its 5-1 rout of 10-man Cádiz, with all five goals coming after Iza Carcelen was sent off with a direct red near the end of the first half.

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