By Richard Martin
(Reuters) - Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane praised their battling display against Sporting Lisbon as they claimed a place in the Champions League knockout stages with a scrappy 2-1 win on Tuesday.
Karim Benzema's 87th minute header gave Real victory after they let 10-man Sporting back into the game following Joao Pereira's red card - the third time in five Champions League games this season a late goal has got them out of trouble.
"We had difficult moments but that's what you expect and what we knew could happen, but once again we refused to give up," said Zidane.
"We kept playing after conceding and scored a great goal thanks to Karim. It's obvious that playing every three days is not easy and we lacked a bit of energy."
Real also beat Sporting 2-1 back in September with two late goals and drew 3-3 at Legia Warsaw with an 85th minute equaliser from Mateo Kovacic.
The win stretches Real's unbeaten run in all competitions to 30 games, two short of a club record of 32 matches without defeat set by Leo Beenhakker's side in 1989.
"These 30 games are an extra motivation for us to keep working as we are. We want to keep doing what we're doing, while being aware that there will always be moments in games when we suffer," added the Real coach.
"We're going to keep going like this but I don't know for how long because it's not easy for us physically."
Real defender Fabio Coentrao was critical of himself after throwing his hands up to appeal for handball against Sporting's Joel Campbell and in the process handling it himself to concede the penalty Adrien Silva scored in the 80th minute.
"It was a very serious error, I messed up really badly," he said. "I appealed for handball but I shouldn't have done, I should have been more concentrated."
Real are second in Group F, two points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund, and will battle it out with the Germans in a fortnight's time for top spot.
Spanish newspaper AS pointed out on Wednesday that finishing runners-up in the group could serve Real better than coming top as they could potentially avoid sides such as Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Bayern Munich.
If Real finish second, they would also avoid fellow Spanish sides Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and could be paired with the likes of Leicester City or Monaco.
Real defender Raphael Varane, however, said they were fully focused on topping the group.
"We don't think about who we could get in the next round, we only think about winning and finishing first in the group."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ken Ferris)