Real Madrid kept pace with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in what promises to be an enthralling La Liga title race with a 3-0 win over Villarreal on Wednesday.
Karim Benzema opened the scoring late in the first half, netting for the fourth league game in a row, before further strikes from Lucas Vazquez and Luka Modric made it a comfortable victory in the second period.
Cristiano Ronaldo left the field in stoppage time in apparent discomfort to spark injury fears on an otherwise positive evening for Madrid.
Barca’s stunning loss of form in recent weeks allowed Zinedine Zidane’s side to close to within one point of the summit, but the pressure was asserted back onto Madrid as the defending champions demolished Deportivo La Coruna 8-0 before kick-off at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Atletico’s subsequent 1-0 triumph at Athletic Bilbao further heightened the need for Madrid to respond in kind here, and they managed to do just that to keep the gap to the leading duo to one point with four matches remaining.
Victory was Madrid’s eighth in succession in the league since their derby loss to Atletico in February as they kept their title hopes alive and maintained their momentum ahead of next week’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester City.
Villarreal, who are into the last four of the Europa League, will hope to join Madrid in Europe’s premier club competition next season – Marcelino’s side occupy the final qualification berth with a six-point gap to fifth-placed Athletic despite a second consecutive defeat.
Madrid had hammered Getafe 5-1 away at the weekend, but they struggled for a similar attacking fluency here as Villarreal kept the hosts at bay initially.
The recalled Sergio Asenjo was forced into routine saves from Benzema and Ronaldo in the opening 10 minutes, but, just as frustrations began to mount inside the Bernabeu, the fans were on their feet in the 41st minute as Benzema made the breakthrough.
Ronaldo surged towards the left byline and his driven cross was parried by Asenjo, the ball falling perfectly for Benzema to nod into the unguarded goal from eight yards.
Villarreal almost conjured an immediate riposte as Keylor Navas produced an impressive stop to deny Denis Suarez, who had Cedric Bakambu unmarked to his left waiting for a tap-in.
The home side began the second period with greater urgency than they had the first and Ronaldo was furious with himself for sending a free header over from Toni Kroos’ corner.
Modric – one of five changes from the Getafe game – curled narrowly wide shortly afterwards, but Madrid doubled their lead in the 69th minute as Vazquez exchanged passes with Benzema and burst into the box before rifling a low finish beyond Asenjo at the near post for Madrid’s 100th league goal of the campaign.
Seven minutes later Modric added his name to the scoresheet, sliding in to steer a superb volley from Danilo’s right-wing cross into the bottom-right corner.
Key Opta stats:
– Madrid are the only side to have scored 100+ goals in seven consecutive La Liga seasons (101 in 15-16).
– Benzema has scored more first goals than any other player in La Liga this season (11).
– Modric has scored his first goal from inside the box in La Liga (seven overall).
– Madrid have won eight La Liga games in a row, their best run since December 2014 under Carlo Ancelotti (12).