Ancelotti praises Real Madrid 'character' after narrow win opens clear gap atop La Liga

Benzema's first half goal enough to see off a threatening Athletic side as Real move seven points clear of Atletico

Carlo Ancelotti has praised his Real Madrid side's "character" after Wednesday's 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao moved them seven points clear at the top of La Liga.

Karim Benzema scored the match-winning goal five minutes before half-time as the Bernabeu crowd serenaded the French striker with chants of "Karim, Ballon d'Or". It was Benzema's 20th goal in 24 games this season and his 12th in La Liga as he tightens his grip on the Pichichi Trophy, awarded to the top scorer in the Spanish top flight. Benzema is three goals clear at the top of the standings, ahead of teammate Vinicius Junior.

"We're on a good run and I like the atmosphere right now in the team," said Madrid manager Ancelotti.

A run of seven consecutive wins in all competitions has helped pull Madrid away from the chasing pack and Benzema, along with the explosive Vinicius, has been instrumental.

Ancelotti insisted on Tuesday Benzema had not been "crying" about losing out to Lionel Messi in the Ballon d'Or on Monday, with the Frenchman finishing fourth in the final vote. But there was more than a hint of rebellion in the air when the Madrid fans chanted "Karim, Ballon d'Or" and the 33-year-old responded by applauding them back.

Ancelotti predicted Benzema would be even more motivated to win the award next season and perhaps his best hope would be to play a decisive role in Madrid winning either La Liga or the Champions League.

With Barcelona rebuilding under Xavi Hernandez and Atletico Madrid struggling to balance their usually dependable defence with a wealth of options in attack, Real Madrid are emerging as clear favourites in Spain.

They defeated Sevilla 2-1 last weekend and now face third-placed Real Sociedad and second-placed Atletico in their next two games, fixtures that could give them a formidable lead if the victories keep coming.

Athletic, meanwhile, stay eighth, without a win now in six.

"Winning seven games in a row isn't luck," said Ancelotti. "This Real Madrid has character. When we don't win with quality, we have other strengths we can use."

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Madrid rode their luck against Sevilla and were stretched again here, with Athletic squandering a string of golden opportunities. The first came from a long ball over the top, which hit Eder Militao on the back and allowed Inaki Williams in, but he shot wide.

Then David Alaba left a long punt downfield for Thibaut Courtois behind him but Williams was there again, only for his first touch to let him down.

Raul Garcia had the best chance, with a free header from three yards out, but he nodded straight at Courtois and there was an air of inevitability about Madrid making Athletic pay.

Vinicius started it, with a driving run in off the left, exchanging with Luka Modric before feeding Marco Asensio, whose curled shot came back to Modric. He fluffed the rebound but so badly that it fell nicely into the path of Benzema, who slotted in.

Athletic were still the better team in the second half and the home crowd grew increasingly agitated.

Raul Garcia's shot had to be blocked by the sliding Lucas Vazquez and Courtois was required to deny Oihan Sancet. Mikel Vesga should have headed in late on but again Militao was there.

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 10:52 AM