Fabio Coentrao’s controversial red card proved no more than a temporary glitch as Real Madrid defeated Espanyol 3-0 on Saturday.
Dani Carvajal’s suspension, coupled with knocks picked up by Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, the latter of whom pulled up during the warm-up, meant Alvaro Arbeloa, Raphael Varane and Coentrao all started for Los Blancos in a makeshift backline. Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo came back into the fold as expected, replacing Sami Khedira.
Madrid presented their Club World Cup trophy before kick-off, and they hit the post not long into proceedings through Karim Benzema, who met Diego Colotto’s clearance on James Rodriguez’s free-kick with aplomb, sending a missile of a volley onto Kiko Casilla’s post.
If that wasn’t enough of a warning sign, James went one better moments later thanks to some mesmerising football. Gareth Bale inch-perfectly picked out Cristiano Ronaldo, who in turn lofted the ball over the Espanyol defence for the Colombian to slide past Casilla.
Raphael Varane was a constant thorn in the visiting box, and he should have made it 2-0 to Madrid when he floated a header just off-target from a corner, while Bale glanced James’ pinpoint cross wide of the near post in a successive phase of play.
Nonetheless, Madrid did double their lead before half-time. Standing on the edge of the box to the right of Casilla’s net, Bale unleashed a free-kick which clipped the post and rocketed in at 158kph, hypnotising the young custodian in the process.
Espanyol’s only serious sniffs of the Madrid goal came via Sergio Garcia, who tested Iker Casillas twice with a pair of low, driven attempts, the latter of which was spilled by the veteran.
Madrid were expected to see out the game with the minimum amount of fuss, but their plans were dealt a huge blow when Coentrao was bizarrely shown a straight red for going into a 50-50 challenge with Jose Canas. Ronaldo was then booked for his protests.
The capital giants seemed to temporarily descend into madness. First up was Isco, who slipped and handballed in the box, before Alvaro Arbeloa counted his lucky stars as he just about managed to shepherd a loose ball into Casillas’ grateful palms, despite Victor Sanchez nipping at his heels.
Los Blancos rediscovered their stride, albeit with Espanyol’s tails pointing upwards, but they could not round off the victory. Ronaldo looked to be clean through until Juan Fuentes snuck back in with a last-gasp block, while Toni Kroos’ delivery was headed narrowly over by Varane.
Speculation linking Bale with a departure from the Santiago Bernabeu is bound to increase after he was involved in another on-pitch episode with Ronaldo. The Welshman was released in bundles of space by Isco, but instead of playing the ball to the No 7, he failed in his quest to round Casilla.
Isco pulled the strings all afternoon, and he was unfortunate to end the match without a goal to his name as his curling strike from the left-hand side of the box stung the fingertips of Casilla, who was forced into full flight by the attacking midfielder.
Still, there was time for a third and final goal as another perfectly-weighted lobbed pass from Isco was met by Arbeloa down the right channel. The right-back's cross at the far post was then brought down and smashed home by Nacho for the defender's first League strike.
The result halts Madrid's run of three straight defeats and momentarily extends their lead at the summit of La Liga to four points.
Real Madrid 3-0 Espanyol
James 12, Bale 28, Nacho 76 Coentrao sent off 54
Real Madrid: Casillas; Arbeloa, Pepe, Varane, Coentrao; James (Nacho 54), Kroos (Khedira 81), Isco; Bale, Benzema (Illarramendi 63), Ronaldo
Espanyol: Casilla; Arbilla, Colotto, Alvaro, Fuentes; Canas, Joan (Stuani 68), Montanes, Sanchez (Luque 62); Garcia (Abraham 82), Caicedo
Referee: Fernandez Borbalan