MADRID, Feb 14, 2011 (AFP) - Real Madrid showed real character to close the gap on leaders Barcelona to five points winning 1-0 at Espanyol on Sunday, despite playing virtually the whole match with 10 men after goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas was sent off after just 90 seconds.
Brazilian international left back Marcelo scored the decisive goal on 23 minutes as Real took advantage of Barcelona's 1-1 draw against Sporting Gijon on Sunday to edge closer in the title race - but it took a battling display from Madrid's 'Galacticos'.
"Espanyol are a strong opponent and they always have fantastic support. Losing your goalkeeper in the second minute and giving a debut to another keeper was tough," said Real coach Jose Mourinho. "The players were fantastic, though, and we deserved to win."
Asked about the five-point gap held by Barcelona, the Portuguese manager replied: "Five points is an advantage and I would like to be five points clear of second."
Real had collected one point from the last six on the road and got off to the worst possible start at the Cornella-El Prat with captain Casillas red-carded for a rash challenge outside the area.
Barely a minute and a half into the match, the keeper came out to stop Jose Callejon in his tracks on the edge of the box and the referee immediately brandished a red card.
Real boss Mourinho sacrificed Argentine winger Angel di Maria and substitute goalkeeper Antonio Adan, a 23-year-old from the youth academy, came on for an unexpected debut.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, Real looked more dangerous and Sami Khedira tested Carlos Kameni in the fifth minute with a low drive before Marcelo clipped the top of the crossbar minutes later.
Real scored on 23 minutes with Ronaldo feeding Marcelo on the left and the Brazilian hammered a first time shot past Carlos Kameni, who should have done better, to give the visitors the lead.
Madrid were the stronger side early in the second half although Espanyol were unlucky to have Callejon flagged offside in the 53rd minute when the striker was clear on goal.
The extra man started to tell as Espanyol dominated possession and it was backs to the wall for Real as they absorbed a good 15 minutes of pressure, but debutant Adan was largely untested.
Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor missed two great chances to wrap up the points for Real in the closing stages with Kameni foiling him on both occasions. However, the misses didn't prove costly.
Elsewhere, Villarreal fell two points behind rivals Valencia in the Champions League race as they crashed to their second successive league defeat with a 1-0 loss at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.
Defender Alberto Lopo's goal on the hour sealed three vital points for Depor, who move out of the relegation zone, as Villarreal failed to score for the second consecutive game.
A set-piece undid Villarreal, with Ivan Riki heading down a free-kick from the left and centre-back Lopo reacting first to slide in a rare goal.
Villarreal, beaten at home by promoted Levante last time out, should have equalised in the 82nd minute but substitute Marco Ruben headed over from close range.
Depor move out of the relegation zone and are now three points clear of Osasuna, who replace them in the bottom three.
Villarreal stay fourth, seven points ahead of Athletic Bilbao, who travel to Real Mallorca on Monday.
Earlier, promoted duo Hercules and Levante did their hopes of staying in the Spanish top flight the world of good with wins over Real Zaragoza and Almeria respectively.
Levante moved out of the bottom three with a 1-0 home win over fellow strugglers Almeria, who stay second from bottom.
Hercules staged a late comeback to record a 2-1 win over Zaragoza, scoring twice in the final ten minutes to turn the game on its head.
Hercules, the only team to beat league leaders Barcelona in the league this season, move three points clear of the relegation zone.