Real Madrid has been playing some superb soccer in recent weeks, but it was more guts than skill that allowed it to extend its Liga winning streak to eight consecutive games against third-placed Valencia on Saturday.
Last season's clash at the Mestalla produced a thrilling 3-6 Real victory and this weekend's 2-3 win was no less dramatic, a rough, rip-roaring roller-coaster of a soccer match.
Despite a spirited start from the home side, Karim Benzema opened the scoring for Real 19 minutes in, deftly controlling a rapidly taken free kick by Xabi Alonso with his right, then sweetly volleying it past keeper Diego Alves with his left.
The tackles and yellow cards flew at the opening of the second half - with such names as Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo, Mesut Özil, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso, among others, all entering the referee's notebook - but Ramos' head connected with a Özil corner in the 71st minute to provide a second.
Before it could have the required stabilizing effect, however, Roberto Soldado pulled one back for Valencia four minutes later. Ronaldo looked to steady the ship once more by slotting in Madrid's third from the tightest of angles another four minutes after that, but - as if on cue - Soldado notched up his second four more minutes down the line. Valencia threw everything at the game in a passionate finale, but - despite a penalty appeal in the dying moments when the ball came close to striking the arm of substitute Gonzalo Higuaín in Real's area - the visitor hung doggedly on for an important victory.
"The team showed its mettle," said Real assistant coach Aitor Karanka, standing in for José Mourinho at the post-match press conference. "Madrid demonstrated that it knows how to hold together and play by taking the initiative or play on the counter."
Sergio Ramos agreed the match was a tribute to the players' spirit. "These are the matches that serve to unite a team," said the defender. "We have taken a big step forward." The result means Real maintains its three-point gap over Barcelona at the top of the table, while Levante could leapfrog Valencia into third if it wins away at Atlético Madrid in a match still being played at press time.
For its part, Barcelona secured three points with a 4-0 thrashing of Zaragoza at Camp Nou. Gerard Piqué, Leo Messi, Carles Puyol and David Villa all got their names on the scoresheet, while goalkeeper Víctor Valdés extended his record run of clean sheets on home turf to 10.
Other results: Atlético Madrid 3-2 Levante; Villarreal 1-0 Betis; R. Sociedad 0-0 Espanyol; Sporting 2-1 Getafe; Osasuna 0-0 Rayo; Sevilla 1-2 Athletic.