Zinedine Zidane’s decision to rest star forward Cristiano Ronaldo backfired as Real Madrid were edged 1-0 by Espanyol courtesy of a late stunner from Gerard Moreno at the RCDE Stadium to leave the door open for fourth-placed Valencia to overhaul them in the La Liga.
Misfiring winger Gareth Bale started at the apex of the visitors’ 4-2-3-1 formation, with Isco, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio lining up behind the Welshman on Tuesday night.
Real, unsurprisingly, dominated the possession stats and kept Espanyol keeper Diego Lopez busy from the off.
Bale, on a night on which he overtook David Beckham as the most capped British player at Real, went close with a header, but former Los Blancos shot-stopper Lopez was alert to the danger.
An Espanyol defender very nearly put the ball into the net, but Lopez was equal to the task again and tipped the ball over the bar as it seemed a Real goal was imminent.
On the other end, the hosts very nearly took a shock lead as carless backless from Raphael Varane fell into Moreno’s path, but Keylor Navas made himself big and managed to send the ball around the post with a save from his feet.
As half-time approached, Real were limited to potshots from distances, with Espanyol standing firm and post the interval, the hosts were the brighter of the sides.
Oscar Duarte would hit the crossbar with a glancing header in the 49th minute while Moreno would go close with a first-time volley but Navas again came to Real’s rescue as he gathered comfortably.
Mateo Kovacic would sting Lopez’s palms with a fierce shot from outside the box and as the match progresssed, Zidane signalled to the bench and sent on Karim Benzema in place of Isco with 20 minutes left in the tie.
Moreno kept probing Real’s defence with his smart movement and his downward header very nearly beat Navas, but the South American managed to recover and smother the ball.
Dani Cebllaos and Borja Mayoral were sent in in the final stages as Zidane sought to eke out a win but it was not to be as Moreno finally got the reward for his perseverance.
Sergio Garcia’s cross bounced just in front of him, but the 25-year-old Moreno took it in his stride as he pirouetted and hit the ball fiercely on the half-volley to send the home crowd into raptures.
With the win, Espanyol move up to 13th while Real remain third after their fifth loss of a disappointing league campaign and they could slip to fourth if Valencia win their game in hand on Wednesday night.