MADRID, April 24, 2010 (AFP) - Brazilian super-sub Kaka ended a six-week injury absence by grabbing the winner for Real Madrid in a 2-1 victory over Zaragoza on Saturday which kept his side on the shoulders of Barcelona at the top of La Liga.
The onus was on Real after Barcelona had earlier beaten Xerez 3-1 at the Nou Camp to open up a four-point lead, and the night started badly when they lost Rafael Van der Vaart to injury.
|Kaka (R) celebrates his goal against Zaragoza during their Spanish League football match at Romareda stadium on April 24, 2010 in Zaragoza. Real won 2-1. AFP PHOTO|
Raul, who came on for the Dutchman, saw a shot come back off the post in the first half before putting Real into the lead after the break and the visitors appeared to be comfortably in control when Zaragoza were reduced to 10-men after Matteo Contini was red-carded.
However, Adrian Colunga rounded keeper Iker Casillas to equalise and Zaragoza continued to stretch the Real defence on the counter-attack.
Real were reduced to shots from distance as they desperately sought the winner until Kaka came off the bench to score with just eight minutes left.
Real coach Manuel Pellegrini praised his side's battling qualities.
"We had two or three very good chances in the first half which we did not take but the team kept going until the final minute. It is always worrying to see the team nervous but we were able to overcome this to win," he said.
Barcelona striker Thierry Henry struck his first goal in over two months as defending champions Barcelona beat nine-man Xerez.
Coach Pep Guardiola sent out a makeshift side with several players rested ahead of next week's Champions League semi-final clash against Inter Milan while Dani Alves was suspended.
Following an opener from Jeffren Isaias, Henry, given a rare start, then found the back of the net for the first time since he scored against Racing Santander in mid-February.
A minute later Mario Bermejo brought bottom-side Xerez back into the game and the visitors had several chances to equalise at the start of the second half before Zlatan Ibrahimovic converted a Yaya Toure cross to give Barcelona a two-goal cushion.
Xerez lost their composure in the final minutes with Matias Alustiza and Fabian Orellana both dismissed.
"It was a dangerous game due to everything that was at stake. Mentality was the key rather than tactics due to the importance of the game last Tuesday (against Inter) and the upcoming match on Wednesday," said Guardiola.
A David Villa penalty saw Valencia beat Deportivo La Coruña 1-0 to put them a step closer to Champions League football next season with four games left.
Valencia are now eight points clear of fifth placed Sevilla after a comprehensive victory over an injury plagued Depor side who have now gone nine-matches without a win.
Valencia were struggling to convert their domination into goals when they were gifted the opener with Jose Ze Castro blatantly handling the ball in the penalty area, and Villa stepped up to calmly stroke home the spot-kick.
On Sunday, fourth-placed Mallorca play Malaga in a game coach Gregorio Manzano has described as the most important of the season as they battle it out with Sevilla, who take on Getafe, for the final Champions League spot.
Below them in the hunt for a Europa League place, Villarreal travel to face Racing Santander, while Athletic Bilbao, level with them on points, are also away at Osasuna.
At the other end of the table the arrival of Javier Clemente as coach at Valladolid has led to an upturn in results but they are still four points from safety and play a Sporting Gijon side also looking to secure their own top-flight status.
Back-to-back wins for Tenerife have improved their chances of survival and they now meet an Atletico Madrid side in mid-table and with nothing left to play for in the league.
Espanyol are hoping to improve their poor away record as they prepare to take on Almeria.