BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With Cristiano Ronaldo missing his scoring touch, Real Madrid needed defender Pepe to score in the second half to secure a 1-0 victory at Espanyol on Sunday to pull within three points of the Spanish league co-leaders.
Pepe was left unmarked to head in Luka Modric's corner kick in the 55th minute, as Cristiano Ronaldo failed to add to his league-leading 20 goals.
Ronaldo is favored to win the FIFA's Ballon d'Or on Monday over Lionel Messi and Franck Ribery. The Portugal forward uncharacteristically wasted two clear scoring chances, while goalkeeper Kiko Casilla denied him on another three occasions.
"The win is important because winning on the road is key to winning the league," said Pepe, who defended Ronaldo despite his off day. "I would vote for Cristiano because what he did last year is very important and he deserves it."
Third-place Madrid took full advantage of Saturday's scoreless draw between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, which left them level at the top of the table at the league's halfway mark.
"The important thing today was to cut into Barcelona and Atletico's lead," said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. "We have to feel satisfied."
Also on Sunday, Real Betis remained in last place after slumping to an error-plagued 2-1 loss at home to Osasuna.
Rayo Vallecano won 1-0 at Getafe's foggy Alfonso Perez Coliseum to end a five-game streak without a win in league play, and Levante edged Malaga 1-0 at home thanks to David Barral's 19th-minute header.
Led by striker Jhon Cordoba, Espanyol surged forward at the start and almost took the lead when Christian Stuani steered his point-blank header past the wrong side of the post four minutes in.
Madrid weathered Espanyol's initial push and turned to Karim Benzema and Ronaldo to provide the attacking threat. Ronaldo scuffed Benzema's pass in the 18th before drawing two awkward saves from Casilla with a powerful strike in the 31st and a dipping free kick in the 37th.
Espanyol, which was without suspended forward Sergio Garcia and coach Javier Aguirre, was fortunate to make it to halftime not trailing after Angel Di Maria squandered Madrid's four-on-two counterattack seconds before Benzema headed wide in the 42nd.