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Benzema, Casemiro both 8/10 as Madrid move two points clear at the top of La Liga

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Marcotti: Benzema stepped into Ronaldo's shoes at Real Madrid (1:46)

Gab Marcotti and Ale Moreno discuss how Karim Benzema has filled in where others at Real Madrid haven't. (1:46)

Casemiro scored after a sensational back-heel assist from Karim Benzema as Real Madrid beat Espanyol 1-0 on Sunday at the RCDE Stadium to go two points clear of rivals Barcelona at the top of La Liga.

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The Brazilian midfielder had already threatened three times in the first half -- almost lobbing goalkeeper Diego Lopez, having a fierce shot headed over by Sergio Ramos and heading off target himself -- before finding the net from close range when spotted by the French striker.

Madrid couldn't add to their tally in a quiet second half but held on for an important win.

Positives

After Barcelona slipped up against Celta Vigo a day earlier, Real Madrid delivered once more. Bottom-placed Espanyol are a poor team, but with sporting director Rufete taking charge -- their fourth coach this season -- victory was no foregone conclusion. There might be more twists and turns to come, but this felt like a very significant weekend in the title race.

Karim Benzema has been in top form since La Liga's return, and here the French striker again showed just how fundamental he is for Real Madrid. Following a goal-of-the-season contender against Valencia earlier this month, here he added a potential assist of the season. His back-heel nutmeg pass for Casemiro was something few players would attempt, let alone execute with such precision.

Negatives

Eden Hazard had initially looked sharp after football's three-month break, but he has faded noticeably this week. Some ups and downs in performance are to be expected after returning from such a long injury lay-off, but the Belgian star will want to end the season strongly.

Zinedine Zidane had spoken about concerns over player fatigue already this week, with games every three days, and there were signs of some tired legs in this game, especially in the second half. Fortunately, Madrid -- unlike many others -- have the squad to cope.

Manager rating out of 10

7 -- Zidane made four changes to the team that beat Mallorca in midweek. Ferland Mendy and Luka Modric were suspended, Gareth Bale and Vinicius Junior dropped out and Marcelo, Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Isco came in.

The absence of in-form Vinicius was a surprise, but Zidane likes to rotate his side. Here they lined up in a 4-3-3 with Isco on the right. When the game started to go flat, the coach brought on Brazilian teenagers Vinicius and Rodrygo -- the only two substitutions he made on the night.

Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Thibaut Courtois, 7 -- Made one good first-half save from Bernardo Espinosa's near-post header and kept out a second-half free kick from Raul de Tomas. Continues to exude confidence.

DF Dani Carvajal, 6 -- Did exceptionally well to block Sergi Darder's early shot inside the box. A tough customer, Carvajal was hurt by a nasty stamp from Adria Pedrosa later on.

DF Raphael Varane, 8 -- Another serene, effortless-looking performance alongside Ramos in a partnership named as the best in the business by Zidane before the match.

DF Sergio Ramos, 7 -- Didn't know much about his first-half chance when caught in the face by Casemiro's powerful shot. Dealt mostly well with De Tomas.

DF Marcelo, 7 -- Kept busy by Wu Lei, as Madrid's left flank was targeted by Espanyol. Important as ever going forward.

MF Casemiro, 8 -- Excellent on his return to the team after suspension. Scored the opener -- his fourth league goal this season -- having already been busy in attack with a trio of first-half chances.

MF Toni Kroos, 7 -- Set the tempo in midfield. Kroos isn't always eye-catching, but the importance of his passing can't be overstated. A player you sometimes notice more in his absence.

MF Federico Valverde, 6 -- Somewhat subdued again on the right of midfield. Valverde is yet to find the superb form he showed before La Liga's suspension.

MF Isco, 6 -- His first start since coming back early from injury, and he lasted an hour. Disappointing, but will improve with game time.

FW Eden Hazard, 6 -- An uneventful game, bar one late first-half chance. On the receiving end of some rough challenges and was taken off after an hour.

FW Karim Benzema, 8 -- His back-heel for Casemiro was a work of genius, and he also went close himself with a curling first-half shot. The undisputed leader of this Real Madrid attack.

Substitutes

FW Vinicius Junior, 6 -- Unlucky not to start, having been Madrid's most dangerous player lately. Replaced a tired Hazard on the left.

FW Rodrygo, 7 -- Brought on alongside Vinicius and showed some clever touches.