Without the BBC, Real Madrid claims a late, nail-biting 3-2 win at Sporting Gijon

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/isco" data-ylk="slk:Isco">Isco</a> saved the day for Real. (Reuters)
Isco saved the day for Real. (Reuters)

Zinedine Zidane made a calculated decision. With the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals against Bayern Munich looming on Tuesday – and a 2-1 lead from the first leg in Bavaria to nurture – he would rest most of his starters at Sporting Gijon on Saturday.

He would trust that the reserves were up to the job against 18th-place Gijon, which seems doomed for relegation. So there would be no Cristiano Ronaldo. No Karim Benzema. No Gareth Bale, who was injured anyway. No Toni Kroos, for that matter. No Luka Modric. No Casemiro, who is no less irreplaceable for being the lesser known of these six pivotal players.

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Of the regulars, only captain Sergio Ramos would play, but mostly because no other center back was available to pair with Nacho.

But then this is Real Madrid. And Real can summon Isco off the bench along with Mateo Kovacic and James Rodriguez to form a Champions League-caliber midfield for any other club. The replacement front line wasn’t bad, either, with Lucas Vazquez, Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio.

Surely, with a three-point lead in La Liga and a game in hand, this was a safe thing to do against a forgettable opponent.

Yet Zidane’s gamble very nearly backfired.

Gijon took the lead twice, and while Real mustered a pair of equalizers, it threatened to spill two precious points hours before second-place Barcelona faced Real Sociedad at home with a chance to cut the gap to a point – with Real still getting to make up a game.

But in the 91st minute, Isco found a winner with his second goal of the game that kept Real’s campaign for a first league title in five seasons on track.

In the 14th minute, Mikel Vesga lobbed a splendid ball over the back line and into the path of Duje Cop, who poked the ball past Kiko Casilla.

But not three minutes later, the magical Isco cut and weaved through the box before curling a beautiful finish into the upper 90.

Which is worth watching from a different angle.

Real came close just after halftime. Nacho headed a free kick floated to the far post at goal, but it was saved impressively by Ivan Cuellar, and Morata couldn’t react quickly enough to nod in on the goal-line.

Right at the other end, Carlos Carmona drifted in a free kick, which was headed back across by Jean-Sylvain Babin and sent behind Casilla with an arcing nod by Vesga to make it 2-1 in the 50th minute.

Real would equalize again. Just before the hour, Danilo served up a sharp cross. Morata jumped higher than Babin and scored with a well-placed header.

For more than half an hour, Real Madrid had a series of chances for a winner with a sustained offensive in pursuit of a third goal. It even had a goal disallowed for offside, after it nodded off the crossbar.  For a while, it looked like they would spill points for a second week in a row, after the 1-1 tie with Atletico Madrid.

But in injury time, Isco located a crack in the defense on the edge of the box – through Babin’s legs – and snuck a shot through the hole and past Ivan Cuellar at his near post.

Real got away with resting its regulars. It made for a nervous afternoon, and it very nearly went wrong. But in the end, all was well and a 33rd title remains well within the record-champions’ grasp.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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