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Real Madrid CF moved a step closer to the UEFA Champions League first knockout round after a narrow victory over FC Zürich earned by Gonzalo Higuaín's first-half strike.
The Spanish Liga leaders, starting play level with AC Milan on seven points at the Group C summit, struggled to create chances against a disciplined Zürich side who had conceded five to the same opponents on Matchday 1 but were breached just once here, Higuaín scoring 21 minutes in. While Madrid were further boosted by the return from injury of Cristiano Ronaldo, their success marked the end of the valiant Swiss champions' European season, the draw between Milan and Olympique de Marseille consigning them to bottom place in the pool.
Facing a packed defence in the early stages, Madrid were forced to probe patiently for an opening and when space was afforded to Kaká just outside the visitors' area, the Brazilian fired a goalbound shot that brought a flying save from Johnny Leoni. Milan Gajić swiftly countered for Bernard Challandes' men but his weak effort was easily fielded by Iker Casillas and play swung back down the other end, Xabi Alonso thundering an attempt wide of the upright.
Zürich coach Challandes had spoken of his desire to spring a surprise, yet just when it seemed his team's supporters were beginning to believe, Madrid took what proved to be a decisive lead. Slipping away from midfielder Alain Rochat, Kaká quickly spotted Higuaín's forward run and delivered a through pass which the Argentinian collected and slid low past Leoni. The Merengues almost doubled their advantage when Higuaín's right-wing corner drifted all the way across to Marcelo whose volley looked goalbound only to hit an upright and bounce away to safety.
Manuel Pellegrini's side continued to pressurise with little in the way of penetration after the restart, so it was activity from the touchline that brought the loudest roar from the home crowd with Ronaldo emerging from the dugout to warm up. The winger had not appeared in a white shirt since suffering an ankle injury against Marseille on 30 September.
With the 24-year-old taking much of the attention, fellow substitute Rafael van der Vaart did his best to wrap up the points when he connected with Marcelo's cross, Leoni making a solid stop. Following Ronaldo's eventual, 70th-minute introduction in place of Raúl González, the Portuguese international produced gasps of expectation from supporters each time he touched the ball and almost put Van der Vaart through on goal after combining well with Kaká in a central position.
Zürich's Silvan Aegerter could do no more than blast over the crossbar as the game headed towards a close, while Madrid would have further decorated the scoreline had Ronaldo managed to direct his effort on target or had Van der Vaart kept his shot down. Higuaín had already done enough, however, leaving Madrid needing a point in Marseille on Matchday 6 to make sure of progress.
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