MADRID, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Midfielder Mahamadou Diarra scored his first goal for Real Madrid to earn a dour 1-0 win at Real Betis that sent them top of the Primera Liga on Saturday.
The Mali midfielder, signed from Olympique Lyon in the close season for €26 million, sent a bullet header past keeper Toni Doblas after a sixth-minute corner.
Real started brightly and threatened to overrun a lethargic looking Betis in the opening quarter but they quickly ran out of steam and seemed happy to settle for a narrow win over Javier Irureta's side.
Betis, who have now lost three of their four games, finished with 10 men when midfielder Nano was shown a red card for elbowing Diarra as they jumped for the ball in injury time.
Real's victory was soured by what appeared to be a serious knee injury to Brazilian right back Cicinho, who suffered a suspected torn cruciate ligament after turning awkwardly just before the half-hour mark.
Four teams are in a position to dislodge Real from top spot on Sunday.
Champions Barcelona and Valencia, two of only three teams with a 100 percent record after three games this season, meet at the Nou Camp in the game of the weekend.
Sevilla, the other team with a perfect start, travel to a rejuvenated Atletico Madrid.
Real coach Fabio Capello opted to leave David Beckham on the bench for a second league game in succession, preferring to use Jose Antonio Reyes and Cicinho on the right flank.
The two repaid the Italian's faith almost instantly when they combined to help Diarra give Real the lead in the sixth minute.
He outjumped two Betis defenders to power in a header at the far post after Reyes had slipped a quickly taken corner to Cicinho who whipped a fine cross into the area.
Reyes almost doubled Real's lead 10 minutes later when he sent a low shot fizzing wide of the post but Capello's side appeared content to sit on their lead and failed to take advantage of Betis's passive approach to the game.
The unambitious home side rarely threatened in the first half, their only clear chance coming when keeper Iker Casillas saved centre-back Juanito's sharp header at the second attempt.
Betis improved in the second period as Real sat back to defend their lead but they failed to further trouble Casillas and the game degenerated into a dull, disjointed affair.