Antonio Rudiger snatched Real Madrid a 1-0 win over Real Mallorca to take them provisionally three points clear at the top of La Liga on Wednesday.
The defender headed home from a corner with 12 minutes remaining to settle a tight clash in which Mallorca twice hit the woodwork.
Vinicius Junior made his return from injury as Los Blancos struggled to find a way through against their stubborn visitors at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Eventually Rudiger converted from Luka Modric’s corner to seal victory ahead of second-place Girona’s clash with Atletico Madrid, third, later Wednesday.
“I scored last season (against Mallorca) and this year again, I’m very happy because it was an important goal and an important three points for us,” said Rudiger.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti was happy his team took advantage of a set piece to secure victory, just as they did against Alaves in their last game of 2023.
“We lacked some freshness and accuracy in the final third, but we won because of a well-taken set piece,” Ancelotti told reporters.
“There are games like today’s in which dead balls can give you an advantage — we played against a team that defended well.”
Madrid have now gone 18 matches without defeat across all competitions.
Ancelotti, who renewed his contract last week until 2026, selected midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni alongside Rudiger at the heart of defence.
With David Alaba and Eder Militao injured and Nacho Fernandez suspended, the Italian was forced to innovate, but he was able to bring winger Vinicius back into the side for the first time since November 11.
The Brazilian had been sidelined with a hamstring injury and was not at his effervescent best, although Mallorca’s persistent Pablo Maffeo also had a say in the matter.
La Liga’s top goalscorer Jude Bellingham had Madrid’s first chance, with Predrag Rajkovic fielding his header from Luka Modric’s dangerous cross well.
Vinicius dragged wide of goal after the Croatian playmaker set him up well, and then was thwarted by the flying Rajkovic.
The 23-year-old produced a cheeky nutmeg to bypass the scrambling Samu Costa and unleashed from the edge of the box but the Serbian goalkeeper tipped his effort away.
However it was Mallorca who came closest to scoring in the first half, with Antonio Sanchez heading against the underside of the crossbar, with the ball bouncing down on to — but not over — the line.
The visitors, 14th, hit the woodwork again when Costa pinged a low drive from distance against Andriy Lunin’s far post early in the second half.
Sanchez volleyed wildly over under pressure from Fran Garcia as Javier Aguirre’s side wasted another good opportunity, badly missing injured hitman Vedat Muriqi.
Ancelotti withdrew Vinicius in the 60th minute for Brahim Diaz, who has impressed over the past two months in the forward’s absence.
Diaz hit the post with a close-range diving header after Rajkovic produced a sensational save from Rodrygo’s effort, with Madrid fans stunned the ball did not end up in the gaping net.
Eventually Rudiger broke the deadlock with a flicked header from Modric’s inswinging corner after 78 minutes to secure Madrid the three points.
Champions Barcelona, fourth, visit Las Palmas on Thursday.