Gareth Bale scored a superb goal on his return after almost three months out with an ankle injury as La Liga leaders Real Madrid beat Espanyol.The Wales forward, on as a second-half substitute, collected Isco’s pass before running at the visitors’ defence and slotting a shot past Diego Lopez.
Alvaro Morata had headed Real in front in the first half from Isco’s cross.
Victory leaves Real three points ahead of second-placed Sevilla, who beat Eibar 2-0.
Barcelona, one point further back in third, host Leganes on Sunday.
Real Madrid have motored on pretty nicely since Bale suffered his injury during a 2-1 Champions League group-stage win at Sporting Lisbon on 22 November – winning the Club World Cup, progressing in Europe and taking command of the Spanish title race.
Nonetheless, manager Zinedine Zidane was pleased to have the forward back in training last weekend, and took the opportunity to give him a 19-minute run-out in what was a fairly straightforward win.
Zidane made seven changes to the team who beat a lively Napoli side 3-1 in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 meeting on Wednesday, leaving goalkeeper Keylor Navas, midfielder Luka Modric and striker Karim Benzema out of his squad altogether.
With a packed fixture schedule over the next few weeks, Zidane’s decision to give key players a breather proved a wise one.
Mid-table Espanyol, for their part, offered little resistance, defending poorly as Morata headed in the opener and rarely looking like getting back into the game thereafter.
Bale’s goalscoring return added extra gloss to the performance for Zidane – who will need all of his key forwards fit for the challenges ahead.
The Wales international said: “The reception I got when I came on was incredible. It’s great to be back and get a win.
“It’s rewarding to come back and score a goal. I’ve only been training with the first team for five days – I’m lacking a lot of fitness.”
Zidane added: “I told him to enjoy the game, he is a special player, different to everyone else.
“It doesn’t look like he’s been out for three months. He’s very powerful, he makes the difference and that’s why he’s special.”
Gameiro hits a treble
Kevin Gameiro scored a five-minute hat-trick as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid won 4-1 at Sporting Gijon.
The second-half substitute’s efforts ensured that Diego Simeone’s side won at El Molinon for the first time since 2008.
Yannick Carrasco scored within 20 seconds of the restart in the second half to give Atletico the lead before Sergio Alvarez levelled two minutes later.
Gameiro came on in the 61st minute and scored his first in the 79th – tucking in from Antoine Griezmann’s deft reverse pass.
The £28m Frenchman grabbed his second with a low-angled strike before completing his hat-trick with a near-identical shot in the 84th minute.
Sarabia and Vitolo send Sevilla second
Sevilla prepared for Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 first-leg home match against Leicester with a 2-0 victory over Eibar, secured with goals from Pablo Sarabia and Vitolo.
Former Manchester City forward Stevan Jovetic created both goals, crossing for Sarabia to volley home in the 30th minute, and sliding a pass across goal for Vitolo to convert in stoppage time as the visitors chased an equaliser.
The win lifted Sevilla into second, although Barcelona will move back above them by avoiding defeat at home to Leganes.
For a better society