Cristiano Ronaldo recovered from a missed penalty to score twice as Real Madrid beat luckless Real Sociedad 3-1 on Wednesday, easing the pressure on coach Rafael Benitez.
Despite signing off for the mid-winter break with a 10-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano, Benitez remained under scrutiny and spoke of a “campaign” against the club prior to the game before Ronaldo lifted the mood at a largely downbeat Santiago Bernabeu.
The visitors – who lost Imanol Agirretxe and Sergio Canales to injuries in the first half – had conceded 22 goals on their previous five La Liga visits to the Bernabeu and were given a let-off when Ronaldo faltered from the spot 24 minutes in.
But when Madrid – without injured captain Sergio Ramos – earned another generous spot-kick before half-time, the Portugal star converted to quell the jeers.
Ronaldo was whistled after his initial miss and the atmosphere again turned sour when Bruma swept home his first La Liga goal four minutes into the second half.
However, Ronaldo came to the rescue again with a well-taken volley after the hour before substitute Lucas Vazquez registered his first Madrid goal late on to give Benitez breathing space despite rounding off 2015 with a somewhat lacklustre display.
Former Madrid man Canales shot high and wide a minute in before Pepe’s header was smartly tipped over by Geronimo Rulli in Madrid’s first sight on goal.
Rulli remained busy early on, denying Ronaldo one-on-one following a quick break before saving Benzema’s strike down to his right.
Keylor Navas was then off his line quickly to thwart Agirretxe at the other end as he evaded Nacho 13 minutes in – the Sociedad man forced off as a result of a heavy collision with the goalkeeper.
Ronaldo then spurned a golden opportunity to open the scoring and improve the atmosphere at the Bernabeu when he put his first penalty over the crossbar following a very soft award.
Benzema went down under minimal contact to earn the spot-kick prior to Ronaldo’s miss and, after Jonathas and Luka Modric went close at either end, Ronaldo was given another chance from the spot.
Gareth Bale’s cross bounced off Yuri’s leg and onto his hand, with Ronaldo making amends to finish down to Rulli’s left.
Canales’ withdrawal before the interval, having torn an anterior cruciate ligament, added to Sociedad frustrations but they levelled four minutes into the second half courtesy of Bruma’s stunning strike.
The winger curled an effort past Danilo and Navas after Jonathas had outmuscled Pepe in the build-up, leading to renewed jeers prior to Bruma going close again soon after – only to be let down by a bad touch when bearing down on Navas.
Mateo Kovacic’s arrival in place of James Rodriguez did little to appease the Bernabeu but Ronaldo’s quality came to the fore when he connected with Marcelo’s corner to angle a volley through a crowd of players and past Rulli.
Sociedad struggled to recover from Ronaldo’s 57th goal of the year for club and country and when Vazquez collected Bale’s cross to tuck home a third, Madrid were guaranteed the points with a result that keeps the heat on fellow title-chasers Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, who play later on Monday.
Key Opta stats:
-Real Madrid have won three penalties in their last two La Liga matches.
-First penalty missed (not saved) by Ronaldo from 71 penalties taken for Real Madrid.
-Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in his last four La Liga matches against Real Sociedad (eight goals).
-The Portuguese player has scored in five of their seven games against the San Sebastian side in La Liga and in all of them at least two goals.
-Real Madrid have just lost one of their last 17 league games against Real Sociedad (W13 D3).
-Real Madrid have scored 25 goals in their last four games at the Bernabeu (La Liga and Champions League), with an average of 6.25 goals per game.
-Madrid have 17 wins in a row against Basque teams at Bernabeu in La Liga; the last Basque to earn points at the Bernabeu were Real Sociedad on April 2006 (1-1).
-Gareth Bale has the most assists in La Liga this season (7).