Despite the sideline leadership of Jose Mourinho, who was serving the first of a two-match ban, Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain ensured success for Real Madrid at Sporting Gijon. The hard-fought 1-0 win returns Los Merengues to the top of the Primera Division.
Higuain tapped home from point-blank range in the 82nd minute to help Madrid record their sixth successive league win and climb back above Barcelona, who had moved two points clear at the summit with their 3-1 win over Villarreal last night. The victory also continues Madrid's fine unbeaten start under Jose Mourinho, with 13 victories in 17 games in all competitions.
Mourinho had to watch today's match from the stands at El Molinon after being handed a two-match ban for his dismissal in Wednesday's 5-1 Copa del Rey win over Real Murcia, while his war of words with Sporting coach Manuel Preciado before the game ensured his side a warm welcome on the north coast of Spain. However, the partisan atmosphere failed to stop the Madrid juggernaut as the visitors edged their way to yet another victory against a Sporting side which finished with ten men following the injury-time dismissal of defender Alberto Botia.
"We managed to win in a very difficult atmosphere and these points may well be very significant in the end, " said goalscorer Higuain.
Madrid, with assistant coach Aitor Karanka taking the reins on the bench, started well and almost took the lead in the 10th minute when Higuain struck the woodwork. The Argentina international was put through following a one-two with Mesut Ozil and was unlucky to see his low shot came back off the far post and straight into the hands of a grateful Juan Pablo Colinas.
We managed to win in a very difficult atmosphere and these points may well be very significant in the end.
That was the closest either side came to breaking the deadlock during the first half, but Madrid looked to step up a gear after the interval and started to cause the Sporting defence some real problems. Angel Di Maria brought a fine save out of Colinas in the 49th minute with a thumping drive, before the Sporting goalkeeper did superbly to deny Higuain when one-on-one in the 68th minute. Sporting raced down the other end and Gaston Sangoy dragged a shot just wide of the far post after getting in behind the Madrid defence.
The introduction of Karim Benzema in the 64th minute gave Madrid an extra attacking edge and the Frenchman, who looks to be growing in confidence after struggling to impress at the start of the season, almost scored in the 75th minute when he brought a fingertip save out of Colinas.
Benzema was also involved seven minutes later as Madrid netted what would prove to be the winner. Sergio Ramos delivered a cross to the far post and Benzema powerfully headed the ball on goal. Colinas made the save but the ball squirmed away from him and Higuain had the easy task of slotting home from on the line.
Madrid needed a brilliant save from Iker Casillas moments later to retain their lead, though. Substitute David Barral got on the end of a left-wing cross to thump a header towards the far post, but Spain captain Casillas dived to his right to keep the ball out. That was Sporting's last opportunity and they finished with a man less when Botia was shown a straight red card for cutting down Cristiano Ronaldo on the touchline.