Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez scored fine goals and Toni Kroos added a killer just before halftime as Real Madrid closed the gap on Barcelona at the top of La Liga with a 4-2 victory over Athletic Bilbao Saturday afternoon at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ronaldo added a second goal in the closing stages as Real stretched its unbeaten run to nine matches and moved to within a point of the leaders. But they aren't as close to the top as it appears. Barcelona is at home to Celta Vigo Sunday, then plays its game in hand against Sporting Gijon on Wednesday so has the opportunity to create some distance in the race.
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The Madrid attention will no doubt turn immediately to Rome, where Real resumes UEFA Champions League play on Wednesday against AS Roma in the first leg of their knockout pairing. With their prospects of claiming the La Liga crown seemingly marginal, the Champions League should become the main focus.
Saturday both teams had to deal with injury problems, Real Madrid without defenders Pepe and Marcelo and attack talisman Gareth Bale. Athletic was missing four midfielders and dangerous forward Inaki Williams. Williams and midfielder Mikel San Jose were suspended while Ibai Gomez, Raul Garcia and Markel Susaeta all are injured. Iker Muniain, another inflential attacker, did not come on until 68th minute as he continues to recover from injury-enforced absence.
It appeared that Real missed its defenders more than Athletic did its midfielders but the Madrid depth up front, coupled with some clever work by Ronaldo and Rodriguez tilted things in the home direction.
Cristiano's third minute opener was a piece of skill, Benzema finding the Portuguese star open on the left and Ronaldo striding past Xabier Etxeita befire curling his shot past Gorka to the far top right.
That should have signalled a Real goal rush, but a dreadful error by Raphael Varane let Athletic right back into things nine minutes later and the visitors took full advantage to force play for the next 20 minutes.
Varane failed to communicate with keeper Keylor Navas in the tenth minute, sliding an ill-judged back pass instead of simply clearing a routine ball for a corner and allowing his defense time to organize. The advancing Navas was stranded and Javier Eraso had a simple, open-net finish.
Navas had to be very good nine minutes later to turn away a powerful Artiz Aduriz header and Aduriz had a deflection strike the crossbar just before the half-hour as the Madrid defense struggled, especially on both flanks where Pepe and Marcelo were missing.
James then restored the Real advantage with a goal every bit as good as Ronaldo's opener. Advancing into space on the left, he took one stride to his left 23 meters out, then smashed his shot past Gorka, curling the ball inside the far left post in the 37th minute.
Just before the break it was Kroos who applied the dagger, turning sharply onto a pass from Ronaldo and having the time and room to power his shot past Gorka from the center of the box.
That two-goal deficit proved too much for the visitors although Athletic might have gotten back into it had Navas not anticipated very well to come to the top of his area and block an Aduriz attempt in the 68th minute.
Varane completed a forgettable day the office when he collected his second yellow card with seven minutes remaining. But 10-man Madrid had time and space for a final goal, Ronaldo chesting down Lucas' crossfield pass before hammering the ball past Gorka with five minutes left which meant that Gorka Elustondo's header in stoppage time did nothing more than make the final score closer.