Goals from Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema against struggling Espanyol on Saturday ensured Real Madrid return provisionally to the top of La Liga.
On a sunny early afternoon at the Santiago Bernabeu, Zinedine Zidane’s side dominated for most of the game, but openings were few and far between in a subdued first half.
Fede Valverde fired wide after a good run by Vinicus Junior, in the team for his first start since October 19, and Benzema shot straight at Diego Lopez after another attack from the Brazilian.
The 19-year-old was lively on his return to the line-up, but was let down by his finishing again, going close with one counter-attack after he was freed by Benzema and raced down the left before forcing Lopez into a fine save and failing to hit the target on a couple of other occasions.
The goal came from an unlikely source as Varane beat his former team-mate Lopez after latching onto a Benzema pass with 37 minutes gone and Madrid deserved their lead at that point.
Casemiro then made a vital tackle to deny Sergi Darder a clear shot on goal early in the second half, but Espanyol created little danger and after missing a couple of decent chances, Benzema made sure of the win with 11 minutes left.
The French forward started off the move as he found Valverde in the area and continued his run, receiving the ball back from the Uruguayan and slotting low into the corner to make it 2-0.
Ferland Mendy was then sent off for a second bookable offence with seven minutes left, but Madrid held on comfortably to move top of La Liga ahead of Barcelona, with the Catalans able to reclaim first place by beating Mallorca later on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Espanyol’s predicament is starting to look dramatic as the Pablo Machin’s side sit second to bottom with just nine points and only two wins from their 16 games.