Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice as Real Madrid survived an awkward encounter and Raphael Varane’s late dismissal to see off Athletic Bilbao 4-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
Ronaldo set the hosts on their way to a fifth La Liga win of Zinedine Zidane’s reign with a superb early finish, but Athletic made life difficult for Madrid by levelling in the 10th minute.
Javier Eraso’s first league goal came about following a Varane error and the visitors – winless at the Bernabeu since 2005, a game in which Zidane came on as a substitute for Madrid – came close to a surprise lead when Aritz Aduritz rattled the crossbar midway through the first half.
However, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos scored inside the final eight minutes of the first period to give Madrid breathing space.
Varane was dismissed harshly for a second booking after apparently catching Aduriz with an elbow late on, before Ronaldo extended the hosts’ lead with his 21st league goal of the campaign three minutes from time.
Substitute Gorka Elustondo’s glancing header in stoppage time was too late to spark late drama as Zidane’s side put the pressure on Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, who both play on Sunday.
Madrid wasted little time in taking the lead when Ronaldo easily cut inside Xabier Etxeita and planted the opener past Gorka Iraizoz.
Ronaldo’s blocked effort was then almost turned home by Mateo Kovacic before Athletic levelled against the run of play courtesy of a lapse in judgement from Varane.
The Frenchman’s misplaced backpass veered away from Keylor Navas, allowing Eraso to bring his side level with a composed finish.
Athletic grew in confidence as Navas denied Aduriz’s towering header before the veteran striker hit the crossbar with a clipped effort from Mikel Balenziaga’s cross.
However, Madrid composed themselves and gained a two-goal cushion before the break, Rodriguez first curling home an impressive long-range strike before Kroos applied the finishing touch to a slick team move he was heavily involved in on the stroke of half-time.
After Karim Benzema was fouled on the edge of the area early in the second half, Ronaldo sent a free-kick into the wall before rattling a post with the follow-up.
Navas’ quick reactions helped him deny Aduritz when one-on-one after careless play from Kroos before the experienced forward was again seen to be on the receiving end of a heavy aerial challenge from Varane, who received his marching orders from referee Alfonso Alvarez.
A composed take and cool finish from Ronaldo dampened any hopes of a fightback amid a spirited Athletic display summed up by Elustondo’s smart header in the latter stages.
Madrid will now await the response from Atleti and Barca against Getafe and Celta Vigo respectively, ahead of their Champions League last-16 first leg with Roma on Wednesday.
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