Madrid: Cristiano Ronaldo struck twice as Real Madrid overcame a stiff test from Athletic Bilbao to move within a point of Barcelona at the top of La Liga with a 4-2 win on Saturday. Ronaldo's early opener was cancelled out by Javi Eraso before a two-goal burst just before half-time from James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos put Madrid in control.
Real were reduced to 10 men late on as Raphael Varane received a red card, but Ronaldo made sure of the points before Gorka Elustondo grabbed a consolation in stoppage time. Barca have two games in hand on Madrid and face Celta Vigo in the first of those on Sunday.
Victory also extended Madrid's impressive run of five wins and a draw in six games since coach Zinedine Zidane took charge. "You will always have errors, but I am not worried about that. I think we were good physically, on the ball and I am happy with what we did today," said Zidane. Ronaldo had been much criticised for his poor performance as Madrid struggled past Granada last weekend, but was sharp from the off back on home soil as he turned inside from Karim Benzema's pass and smashed home his 31st goal of the season.
"The press are here to opine on whether Ronaldo plays well or badly, if he is finished, but today he has showed he is bloody brilliant," added Zidane. However, Athletic reacted well to going behind in a hugely entertaining first half with chances flowing at either end. The visitors were level on 10 minutes when Varane's errant backpass was only parried by Keylor Navas into the path of Eraso to slot home. Navas then had to produce a brilliant save to parry Aritz Aduriz's powerful downward header.
At the other end, Gorka Iraizoz also made a great save to deny Danilo. And Aduriz came close again on the half-hour when his deflected shot came back off the crossbar. However, the Basques were made to pay for their profligacy as Madrid showed their firepower with two goals in eight minutes before half-time. Rodriguez regained the lead with a trademark drive into the bottom corner from outside the box for just his fifth goal of the season.
Kroos then put the game beyond Athletic as he received Ronaldo's pass just inside the area and saw his shot flick off Aymeric Laporte on its way past Iraizoz. Ronaldo came close to extending the lead when he struck the post from range just after the break. Navas was also called on to make another fine save to smother Aduriz's effort on the edge of the area after a rare wayward pass from Kroos. Madrid had to see out the final seven minutes with 10 men as Varane saw a second yellow card for leading with his elbow in an aerial clash with Aduriz.
Yet, even with a man less, Ronaldo got his second of the afternoon to move ahead of Luis Suarez as La Liga's top goalscorer by controlling Lucas Vazquez's cross before firing home from close range. Athletic did eventually get the second goal their performance deserved in stoppage time when Elustondo rounded off the scoring from Oscar de Marcos's cross. Elsewhere, Villarreal strengthened their position in fourth thanks to Roberto Soldado's solitary goal in a 1-0 win over Malaga. Villarreal are now 11 points clear of Sevilla, who face Las Palmas on Sunday, in the fight for the final Champions League place.