Real Madrid maintained their 100 per cent record this season despite Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale sitting out the 2-0 LaLiga win at Espanyol.
Coach Zinedine Zidane ruled Ronaldo and Bale out of the trip to the Estadi Cornella-El Prat due to illness and a hip injury respectively, while he handed a first start of the season to James Rodriguez.
That call was rewarded in first-half stoppage time as the Colombia playmaker fashioned space to open the scoring with an unerring 25-yard strike.
James’ goal brought an end to an otherwise forgettable opening 45 minutes but Madrid operated with an easy control after the break and, having gone close on a few occasions, Karim Benzema – the remaining member of Zidane’s feted “BBC” forward line – opened his account for the season to seal the victory.
Madrid sit three points clear of rivals Barcelona and surprise package Las Palmas after four matches, while Espanyol – who were left to rue a pair of first-half missed from Leo Baptistao – are still looking for their first win under Quique Sanchez Flores after two draws and as many defeats.
Madrid captain Sergio Ramos provided much of the early entertainment as he collected a deserved third-minute booking for clattering through Baptistao before powering a header wide from James’ corner.
Baptistao might have still been feeling the effects of Ramos’ boisterous introduction as he allowed Kiko Casilla to save in the Madrid goal following a dreadful clearance from Pepe.
Zidane suffered an unwelcome addition to his fitness concerns when holding midfielder Casemiro departed with an apparent calf injury in the 19th minute, with Toni Kroos on in his place.
Ramos’ eventful outing continued as he took a Hernan Perez piledriver in the face and created more work for the Madrid medical staff.
Benzema was largely starved of service up front in the absence of Madrid’s attacking superstars and his eagerness to get on the end of Marcelo’s cross from deep on the left flank resulted in a goal being ruled out for offside.
Baptistao flicked a header beyond Casilla’s despairing dive but wide from Javi Lopez’s centre and the Espanyol striker would regret his wastefulness when James muscled past Pape Diop to arrow a drive into the bottom corner.
Diego Lopez produced a high-class save to prevent Benzema from scoring a goal of comparable quality in the 59th minute – the Frenchman exquisitely controlling Lucas Vazquez’s header and hitting a rasping volley on the turn that was met with the Espanyol goalkeeper’s razor-sharp reactions.
Javi Lopez and Oscar Duarte combined to scramble behind as Vazquez and Benzema sought to increase Madrid’s advantage in the 67th minute, shortly before Diego Lopez tipped a bouncing low strike from the latter behind.
The goal Benzema’s endeavours deserved arrived 19 minutes from time as Vazquez steered a low cross to the near post that left him with a simple finish.
With Gerard Moreno unable to maintain his prolific start to the season in attack for Espanyol, Flores turned to Felipe Caicedo from the bench and the powerhouse Ecuadorian had an attempt brilliantly blocked by Pepe.
Casilla was alert to push Caicedo’s deflected follow-up behind before Madrid closed out the points comfortably, ensuring Ronaldo and Bale’s absences were of little consequence.
Key Opta stats:
– Real Madrid equalled the best winning streak of a side in the top flight, set by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010-11 (16).
– James Rodriguez has scored more goals from outside the box than any other midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues since 2014-15 (11).
– Karim Benzema scored 300th the goal for Real Madrid’s BBC trio in all competitions (Cristiano Ronaldo 165, Karim Benzema 75 and Gareth Bale 60, since 2013-14).
– Only two managers have won 16 games in a row for a same club in LaLiga history: Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane.
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