Gareth Bale made an instant impact on his return from injury as Real Madrid extended their lead at the top of La Liga to four points with a 2-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday.
Bale had been sidelined three months and on his return took just 13 minutes to score as he swept home into the far corner after coming on as second-half substitute in a much changed Real line up.
Alvaro Morata opened the scoring of an otherwise uneventful contest when he bulleted home Isco’s cross 12 minutes before half-time.
Earlier, substitute Kevin Gameiro hit a five-minute hat-trick as Atletico Madrid maintained their grip on fourth with a 4-1 win at Sporting Gijón.
Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane made seven changes to the side that started Wednesday’s 3-1 Champions League last 16, first leg win with difficult La Liga trips to Valencia and Villarreal to come in the next week in mind.
Morata was one those handed a rare chance to start up front with Karim Benzema left out of the squad altogether.
The Spanish international hadn’t started any of Real’s previous five league games, but made his case for more minutes as he powered home Isco’s fine in-swinging cross for his 11th goal of the season.
Morata just failed to get on the end of a tantalising Cristiano Ronaldo cross and Ronaldo also had a goal ruled out for offside as Real bossed a first-half short on clear-cut chances.
Ronaldo should have made the game safe when he headed over from close range midway through the second-half.
Bale’s much-anticipated return since injuring ankle ligaments away at Sporting Lisbon on November 22 came 20 minutes from time when he replaced Morata.
And the Welshman showed the home fans what they have been missing for the past three months as he finished off a lightning quick Real counter-attack by firing into the far corner.
– Quick fire Gameiro –
In Gijon, Gameiro was seconds away from making history as he just missed out on beating David Villa’s record for the fastest hat-trick in La Liga history.
Gameiro was only introduced 28 minutes from time but struck in the 80th, 81st and 85th minutes and dedicated the hat-trick to his recently deceased grandmother.
“Those goals are for my grandmother, who died this week. I scored three for her.”
Yannick Carrasco had bundled Atletico into the lead seconds into the second-half before Sergio Alvarez levelled three minutes later.
Defeat leaves Sporting still languishing in the relegation zone, two points off safety.
The visitors got a break right at the start of the second period when Carrasco was allowed to bear down on goal despite Antoine Griezmann standing in an offside position and tapped home at the second attempt after Ivan Cuellar had saved his first effort.
The lead lasted just three minutes as Atletico’s once solid defence was breached by Alvarez as his effort evaded the attempts of Stefan Savic to clear off the line.
Atletico have now conceded more goals in La Liga so far this season than all of last season in La Liga.
Gameiro was summoned from the bench just after the hour mark as Atletico upped the pressure in search for a winner.
Griezmann was harshly denied by the offside flag 15 minutes from time.
However, the French international did have a vital role to play in Gameiro’s first as it was his through ball from which Gameiro rounded Cuellar to slot home.
Thomas Partey teed up Gameiro to thrash home seconds later and Gameiro completed his hat-trick with another composed finish on the counter-attack.