Real Madrid moved to the top of the La Liga table, at least temporarily, with a 3-0 victory at home to Elche on Saturday at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid.
Asier Illarramendi broke the deadlock with a deflected goal in the 34th minute. Gareth Bale doubled the lead in the 71st minute with a superb long-range strike. Isco sealed the points nine minutes from time as Real hit Elche on the counter with lethal precision.
The victory gives Real Madrid sole possession of first place in La Liga, three points clear of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, at least momentarily. Elche—who entered the match in fine form, having lost just once in their last six league matches—remain in 13th, pending Saturday's later results.
Real Madrid 3-0 Elche FT: Shots (OT) 16(7) - 5(2), Possession 58% - 42% http://t.co/bDCoh0CZJq— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 22, 2014
Madrid's three-point lead atop the table could be short-lived. Barcelona, who entered the day in first place on goal differential, were set to play at Real Sociedad later Saturday. Atletico Madrid will play at Osasuna on Sunday.
An important moment in the race could lie in wait next Sunday, when Real travel across town to play rivals Atletico. First, though, Real must head to Germany to face Schalke on Wednesday in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.
"The players know well that at this stage of the season all the matches are very important," Real manager Carlo Ancelotti said in his pre-match remarks, per RealMadrid.com. "We are focused on the next one. We have enough time to prepare for that Champions League game."
Ancelotti made three changes to the side that won 3-0 at Getafe in the league last weekend. Dani Carvajal replaced Marcelo at full-back, Raphael Varane slotted in at centre-back in place of Sergio Ramos and Illarramendi came into the midfield for Luka Modric.
Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was included in the squad, as Real Madrid hoped to have the final match of his three-game ban overturned. But the Tribunal of Sporting Administration upheld the ban, per Inside Spanish Football, and Ronaldo missed the match.
Karim Benzema took Real Madrid's first shot, trying his luck from distance in the third minute. But his low drive was pushed past the post.
Elche had a sight of goal in the eighth minute, when Coro fired at Diego Lopez from a tight angle on the right. Back at the other end, Di Maria hit the woodwork with a curling corner two minutes later.
With chances becoming less frequent, Di Maria was the next to have a sight of goal, curling an effort over the bar after fine dribbling along the edge of the box. Six minutes later, Jese Rodriguez scuffed a first-time shot wide of the far post from Di Maria's cross on the left.
The breakthrough came in the 34th minute.
Di Maria took a corner on the left, and Pepe flicked the ball on to Illarramendi along the edge of the box. Illarramendi chested it down and sent a deflected shot into the net off Manu del Moral's leg.
Elche were aggrieved by what appeared to be a missed offside call on Benzema in the buildup. Regardless, it was Illarramendi's first league goal for Real Madrid following his summer move from Real Sociedad.
Real searched for a second after Bale had an attempt blocked in the 41st minute and Benzema saw his shot saved one minute later. But the pressure did not produce a second goal, and the hosts went into half-time with a 1-0 advantage.
Elche pushed for an equaliser after the break, with Javier Marquez shooting off target in the 53rd minute. The visitors enjoyed a clear edge in possession early in the second half, but a Madrid counter in the 59th minute ended with Bale shooting off target.
Bale then missed with a header in the 67th minute as Real began to build pressure. Four minutes later, the Welshman doubled Madrid's lead with a stunning strike.
Following a failed clearance by Elche, Alonso laid off for Bale well outside the box. Bale took a couple touches before blasting a sublime long-range shot in off the underside of the bar to make it 2-0 in the 71st minute.
Ten minutes later, Real made it 3-0.
Substitute Isco started and finished a swift counter that started in Madrid's half. After receiving a a pass from Benzema in Elche's box, Isco slotted in at the near post to seal the points.
Elche's Aaron Niguez tried to catch Lopez off his line with a shot from the halfway line in the 88th minute, but Lopez raced back and saved comfortably.
Real had time for another chance when Alvaro Morata raced clear of the Elche defence with a surging dribble, but the substitute's shot flew into the side netting.
"I’m satisfied because we didn’t concede anything at the back," Ancelotti said after the match, per Inside Spanish Football. "Our play could have been better, but at this time in the season we should be more solid and we have been."
|Angel Di Maria||8.1|
Ratings via WhoScored.com
|Manu del Moral||6.6|
Ratings via WhoScored.com
Real Madrid play at Schalke in the Champions League Round of 16 on Wednesday. Los Blancos return to La Liga with a match at Atletico Madrid next Sunday.
Elche host Celta Vigo in the league next Saturday.