Real Madrid had to recover from a shock second half equalizer, Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice to spark a 3-1 victory over Real Sociedad on Wednesday afternoon at the Santiago Bernabéu as the La Liga season resumed following a holiday break.
The three points allowed Real Madrid to keep pace in La Liga. Atletico Madrid claimed a 2-0 victory against Rayo Vallecano earlier and Barcelona routed Real Betis 4-0 at the Camp Nou on Wednesday. Barca also has a match in hand on their title challengers because of their FIFA World Club Cup obligations.
Real Madrid played some lovely, flowing football in the first half but it took a pair of debatable penalty awards from referee Jorge Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez to allow them to go into the interval on top. And it also took two opportunities for the usually reliable Ronaldo to get them the lead from the penalty spot.
"Despite missing the penalty, Ronaldo took another one and [carried] the team on his back," Rafa Benitez said after the 3-1 win. "The whole team showed character and responsibility. If we had taken more of our chances we would have had a much more comfortable game."
When Real Sociedad grabbed their 48th minute goal from Bruma it was suddenly match-on with the visitors growing in confidence before Cristiano restored his team's lead and gave them the needed platform. The goal was a fine first-time, cross-body volley to Marcelo's corner in the 67th minute. Lucas Vasquez made it safe with four minutes to go when he first-touched a Gareth Bale cross from the left to control, then finished neatly.
With Bale outstanding in a wide role Madrid had too much in the end, but they struggled at times against their visitors.
Before the match Real manager Rafa Benitez had claimed that there was "a campaign" against the Madrid giants, himself and club president Florentino Perez. Coming into the afternoon having won just three times in their last six La Liga games, Benitez, whose name was greeted with boos and whistles in the pre-game introductions, is also having to deal with criticism of his tactics and the team's style of play, some of the supporters unhappy with the product they have seen on the field this season.
The precision of the Real start belied any controversy. Geronimo Rulli, the Sociedad keeper, had to produce three big saves in the first 10 minutes, off a Pepe header, a Ronaldo drive from a fine Bale cross and then from a Benzema attempt from close range as the hosts were quickly in control and attacking with speed.
At the other end Keylor Navas was often spectator but a wonderful control-and-turn move allowed Imanol Agirretxe to get in alone and force the Costa Rican keeper to be at his best in the 13th minute. The attack proved costly to the visitors as Agirretxe suffered a knock in his collision with Navas and had to be taken off injured.
Ronaldo missed his 24th minute penalty when he casually skied it over the bar after Yuri Berchiche had been controversially penalized for bundling into Benzema's attempt to reach a Bale cross from the left byeline. The second award came from an even harsher decision when Bale's cross came off the foot, then the arm of sliding defender Yuri Berchiche. Ronaldo atoned for his miss, hammering the ball past Rulli to the low right corner of the net in the 43rd minute after Sociedad players protested the award.
Sociedad got level three minutes into the second half when Bruma, who had come on for the injured Agirretxe, scored a wonderful goal from low on the left side of the box. Jonathas got the ball across to the scorer when he was held up in the inside right channel. The Guinea-Bissau youngster, on loan from Galatasaray, bent the ball past Navas to the far top corner.
No goalkeeper could have prevented Ronaldo's second goal. From a corner on the left, Marcelo floated the ball to the far side of the box where the Portuguese international's finish was of the highest class, nor could Rulli do anything about Lucas' fine finish, the substitute striking from the center of the box after taking down Bale's cross.
"When the team work to their maximum, then they can show their quality," Benitez reiterated his belief Madrid fans will get behind the team if the side continues to strive for positive results after Wednesday's match. "If they maintain the motivation they showed today they will win many more games. Whenever we win we are happy and content, the judgement will come at the end. We are still, for me, on a good path, and we can get better."
He added: "Having so many attacking players means we score more goals, but also it's a bit harder for us in defense."
Real travels to Valencia, under new boss Gary Neville Sunday to continue their La Liga campaign. Valencia plays at Villarreal on Thursday to complete the La Liga holiday midweek program.
Information from Goal.com was used in this report.