Marco Asensio marked his long-awaited return by scoring with his first touch and Karim Benzema netted twice as Real Madrid cruised to a 3-0 win over Valencia on Thursday.
Spain international Asensio has not kicked a ball in anger this season after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury last July and only regained fitness during LaLiga's suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Asensio made up for lost time by showing sublime technique to double Madrid's lead in the second half of the contest at Madrid Castilla's Alfredo Di Stefano stadium.
Karim Benzema had opened the scoring from a wonderful team move just after the hour and rounded things off with a stunning second as Zinedine Zidane's men deservedly earned a win that moves them back to within two points of leaders Barcelona, with Valencia's disappointment compounded by a late red card for Lee Kang-in.
Toni Kroos and Eden Hazard had squandered presentable early chances when teed up by Benzema, the latter shooting straight at Jasper Cillessen when one-on-one.
Rodrigo Moreno almost made Madrid pay but his shot across goal was brilliantly tipped onto the left-hand post by Thibaut Courtois.
Rodrigo slotted home after 21 minutes, only for VAR spot an offside against Maxi Gomez, who deflected Carlos Soler's pass into his team-mate's path.
Both goalkeepers were busy again before the break, Cillessen denying Dani Carvajal after a jinking run and Courtois parrying away Geoffrey Kondogbia's long-range effort.
Madrid were completely in control after the restart, though it took until the 61st minute for the breakthrough to arrive.
Hazard picked up the ball on the left of the area and played a wonderful one-two with Luka Modric before teeing up Benzema, who arrowed his strike into the bottom-left corner.
Modric, who grew in influence after a quiet first half, brought the best out of Cillessen again with a long-range drive but there was nothing the keeper could about Asensio's goal.
Ferland Mendy fired a cross in from the left and Asensio sensationally guided home a first-time volley into the right-hand side of the goal.
Not to be outdone, Benzema put the cherry atop the cake with a delightful effort, lifting the ball over Hugo Guillamon before rifling a volley past a helpless Cillessen, with Lee sent off late on for kicking Sergio Ramos.
What does it mean? Asensio adds another dimension to title-chasing Madrid
It has been a frustration campaign for many but not least for Asensio who was injured in pre-season. Having the attacking midfielder back gives Madrid another weapon in their extensive arsenal as they attempt to overhaul Clasico rivals Barcelona at the top.
Benzema shines again for Madrid
Prior to LaLiga's unplanned break, Benzema was enjoying a fine campaign. The French striker was superb against Eibar and was even more influential here. His classy opening goal broke Valencia's resolve and he will have to argue the toss with Asensio as to who scored the best of the match. Benzema's fancy footwork gave Valencia's defence nightmares at times and, had his team-mates been more clinical, he would have had a couple of deserved assists, too.
Celades fails to react
The first half was sort of strangely brilliant in that the score could quite feasibly have been 4-2 to Madrid, with the game bright without properly bursting into life. It was a different story after the restart, though, with Madrid forcing Valencia to retreat deeper and deeper. Los Che coach Albert Celades did little to redress the balance and paid the price.
Key Opta Facts
– Karim Benzema has scored 243 goals for Real Madrid in all competitions, moving to fifth in the all-time top-scorer list for the club, above Ferenc Puskas.
– Marco Asensio scored just 31 seconds after coming as a substitute in this match, the fastest goal by a Madrid sub in LaLiga since at least 2006-07.
– Eden Hazard has made two assists in his past two games, as many as he had in his previous 15 matches for Madrid in all competitions.
– Against Valencia, Madrid had more shots on target without scoring (8/9) than in any other first half in all competitions under Zinedine Zidane.
– Valencia have lost 88 LaLiga games against Real Madrid, more than against any other opponent.
Madrid are on the road with a trip to Real Sociedad on Sunday, while Valencia welcome Osasuna on the same day.