Karim Benzema claimed a hat-trick as Real Madrid recovered from a lacklustre first half to condemn Athletic Bilbao to a 3-0 defeat at the Bernabeu.
The Frenchman dispatched the impressive Marco Asensio’s 47th-minute cross and then repeated the dose from Luka Modric’s corner with 14 minutes remaining before adding a third in stoppage time to take his tally for the season to 30 goals in all competitions.
Third-placed Real, who reduced the gap to rivals Atletico Madrid in second to four points in the process, were way off the pace before the break but managed to find the required quality after the restart to kill off opponents who saw plenty of the ball but did not do enough with it.
Bilbao gave as good as they got in the early stages as Real stuttered out of the blocks, although the home side gradually warmed to their task and went close with 13 minutes gone when Marcelo fired over from Lucas Vazquez’s lay-off after a neat exchange down the left.
The Real skipper was proving his side’s most potent weapon as they eased themselves into the ascendancy, although he was unable to make meaningful contact with a 27th-minute half-chance from the edge of the penalty area.
Bilbao were struggling to find time and space, but they did just that seconds later when Inaki Williams broke down the right and sent in a dangerous cross which goalkeeper Keylor Navas had to claim before Inigo Cordoba could do any damage.
Indeed, it was they who finished the first half the stronger with skipper Iker Muniain prominent and Raul Garcia heading a 42nd-minute Benat Etxebarria corner straight at Navas.
However, it took the home side less than two minutes of the second half to get their noses in front courtesy of their most fluent move of the game to that point.
Toni Kroos put Marco Asensio into space down the left and his pinpoint cross was met with a powerful downward header which keeper Iago Herrerin simply could not repel despite getting a hand to the ball.
Herrerin’s goal came under threat once again from Kroos and Marcelo in quick succession as Real shook off their first-half lethargy.
Benzema might have had a second goal within nine minutes of his first when he fired just wide of the far post after Luka Modric, Asensio and Lucas had combined to good effect on the counter, but with Muniain and Williams continuing to threaten on the break, the game was far from over.
Manager Zinedine Zidane sent on Gareth Bale and Isco with 20 minutes remaining, but Navas had to field Garcia’s well-struck 75th-minute shot from Williams’ knock-down as Bilbao looked for a way back.
However, the game was effectively over seconds later when Benzema rose at the back post to head Modric’s corner firmly home, and after Navas had made a fine late save to deny Williams a consolation goal, Benzema completed his treble when he steered the ball into the empty net after Herrerin had raced from his line and headed an attempted clearance straight to Bale.
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