Football Soccer - Real Madrid v Alaves - Spanish La Liga Santander
By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Real Madrid tightened their grip on top spot by beating Alaves 3-0 at home in La Liga on Sunday to provisionally move five points ahead of nearest challengers Barcelona despite coach Zinedine Zidane being forced to make changes in defence.
Karim Benzema put Real ahead in the 31st minute while appearing to be offside in the build-up but Alaves still caused the leaders a few headaches before goals from Isco and Nacho in the 85th and 88th minutes sealed the points.
Zidane told reporters he was happy with a clean sheet even if the final result somewhat flattered his side.
Real lead the standings on 68 points although second-placed champions Barcelona, who have 63 also from 28 games, can peg them back when they visit Granada later on Sunday.
Sevilla slipped out of the top three after being held 0-0 at home by struggling Sporting Gijon in the early game.
Real were dealt an early blow when Raphael Varane had to go off with a hamstring problem in the 11th minute which forced Zidane to rejig his defence, moving Nacho to centre back and switching Danilo from right back to left back to accommodate substitute Dani Carvajal, who set up the breakthrough goal.
Carvajal received a pass from Benzema on the right and cut inside to send the ball bouncing back to the Frenchman who lashed it into the net.
Zidane had rested goalkeeper Keylor Navas, captain Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, and was missing Casemiro through suspension, but opted for a highly attacking formation.
He started playmaker Isco in the midfield three behind his first choice attacking trio of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Alaves spurned two clear chances to level in the second half before Isco killed them off by smashing home a perfectly weighted pass from Ronaldo on the counter, while Nacho bundled in the third goal moments later, pouncing after Bale had smacked the crossbar from a free-kick.
Zidane said that while his team underperformed in the second half their gruelling fixture list - they face eight more games in April - affected their ability to play well in every match.
"We know we can always improve but when you play every three days you can't always play 90 perfect minutes. We need to remember that being consistent will lead us to doing great things," he told reporters.
"We were the much better team in the first half, we made a great start but the second period was worse, we lost the ball a lot which we don't usually do and you could say the scoreline is harsh on Alaves but it was vital we kept a clean sheet."
Sevilla dropped out of the top three for the first time since November after being held goalless by relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon, with the hosts dropping points for the fourth consecutive league game.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Clare Lovell and Ken Ferris)