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Real Madrid edge closer to La Liga title with narrow win over Granada

At the final whistle, there was a scream that echoed around another empty arena in which Real Madrid had won and their players raised their arms. They had been made to suffer, more than they had expected after a seemingly perfect start, but they were safe now, so nearly there. Two early goals from Ferland Mendy and Karim Benzema had been enough – just – to take them to a ninth consecutive win, beating Granada 2-1, and within one win of winning the title with two games still to go. The longest league will be theirs, secured when it became the shortest: an intense summer tournament in which they never even trailed, let alone lost.

When the football restarted after almost a hundred days of lockdown, Madrid were second, a club that had won only two of the last 11 La Liga titles on course to miss out on another. But this eleven-game mini-league has been good for them. The Covid league, as Sergio Ramos called it, meant a tangible target laid before them, something to reach out and take. Zinedine Zidane’s team arrived here having won eight from eight and kept five consecutive clean sheets, leading Barcelona on the head to head record with a game in hand. They hadn’t even trailed yet. And didn’t here either.

In these five weeks, Madrid have not always been sparkling but it felt like somehow, someone would find a way through. Few expected it to be the man who did, not this time. Twenty different members of Madrid’s squad had scored in the league. Ferland Mendy, signed for €50m in the summer to offer the defensive stability Marcelo could not, was not one of them. He is now. There was ease in the way in which he ran past Víctor Díaz to the left side of the area and ferocity in the way he hit the shot, the ball flying high into the net at the near post.

They had only been playing nine minutes. They only needed half of that to get another, and this time there was a more familiar look to it. A break that began with Darwin Machís turning into trouble on the corner of one area ended at Benzema’s feet in the opposite corner of the other. Same place Mendy had been, same conclusion, different means. Cutting back, Benzema bent the ball beyond Rui Silva for his 19th league goal. On the touchline Granada manager, Diego Martínez, swore loudly; to his left, Zidane clapped.

It was done, he must have felt and he wouldn’t have been alone. Madrid played, the ball theirs, moved with a smoothness that belied their speed. It even sounded good. Tac, tac, it went, from one side to the other, through the lines and back again, round and round. Occasionally there was a shout. Carva, go. Case, Case. Tac, tac. Bats and swallows dived over the stadium, a high-pitched serenade to accompany the percussive rhythm. Tac, tac. Luka, wait. Tac, tac. Open, open. Tac, tac.

The ease with which Benzema finds space, drifting free, was something to see; the ease Modric found him was too, a gorgeously gentle, angled pass providing the Frenchman with another opportunity. This time it was a thump, Rui Silva pushing over just before half-time.

But by then Granada, who had lost their way, left chasing butterflies, had found it again. Domingos Duarte drew a sharp save from Thibaut Courtois – a reminder of the goalkeeper’s huge contribution to this incoming title and that there might still be life in this game. Early in the second half, there really was. Casmeiro was caught in the centre and Yangel Herrera led the charge, slipping the ball into Machís. From virtually the same place that the first two goals had been scored, he drove it between Courtois’s legs and the place erupted as much as any place with barely two hundred people in it can.

This was different now, Machís guiding a half volley past the post then almost reaching Carlos Fernández’s filtered pass. It sounded different too: louder, more tense, protests accompanying the play where before there were none, even the ball hit harder now, less no room for subtlety. Duarte carried from deep all the way to the edge of the Madrid area where he was brought down. When the scene was repeated not long after, Ángel Montoro complained to the ref: “you could hear the bloody clash”. He was right too. the pace quickened, the pitch tilted towards Madrid’s goal.

There was a scramble in the six-yard box, Germán falling in the crowd. Still Granada came. Antonio Antonín controlled on his chest and hit an acrobatic volley that Courtois saved, diving full length. The ball came back in and reached Ramon Azeez, whose shot was cleared off the line by Ramos. “Bravo! Bravo!” Martínez shouted, applause intensifying as it echoed round, everything accelerating. Montoro’s late header drifted over and then Rui Silva went up for a corner, only to watch it fly over his head. Madrid hung on, not least because they had something to hang on to - a league title that they surely won’t let go of now.

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