Gareth Bale silenced his critics by scoring twice as Rafael Benitez got his first win as Real Madrid coach with a 5-0 thrashing of Real Betis.
Madrid remain two points behind Barcelona as Thomas Vermaelen was the unlikely hero for the European champions as they overcame stiff resistence from Malaga to win 1-0 at the Camp Nou.
Benitez’s men had been held to an embarrassing 0-0 draw by newly promoted Sporting Gijon last weekend, but there was to be no repeat as Bale headed home James Rodriguez’s cross inside two minutes.
Rodriguez then fired an audacious free-kick from a narrow angle into the far corner of the net to double the advantage seven minutes before the break.
Bale turned provider at the start of the second period for Karim Benzema to head home the third before Rodriguez produced another spectacular effort with an overhead kick to make it 4-0.
Betis had a great opportunity to at least mark their visit to the Bernabeu with a consolation when Raphael Varane was penalised for upending Jorge Molina.
However, Keylor Navas made the most of his opportunity despite the ongoing speculation that Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea could join Madrid in the coming days by diving low to his left to save Ruben Castro’s penalty.
And Bale had the final word with a fierce left-footed effort that clipped the post on its way into the net.
At the Camp Nou, Vermaelen succeeded where Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar failed as he fired the only goal of the game past the excellent Carlos Kameni 18 minutes from time.
The Belgian defender endured a nightmare debut campaign with the Catalans last season despite being part of a treble winning squad as he was perennially sidelined by injury.
“It is a great reward for him for the fight he had last year,” said Barca defender Javier Mascherano.
“I am happy for him because last year he couldn’t show his best football.
“The goals from the front three will come The team generated a lot of chances, but we didn’t have much luck.”
Neymar was starting for the first time this season after overcoming a bout of the mumps as he was reunited with Messi and Suarez up front.
Suarez was the first to have the ball in the net after just four minutes, but his headed effort was ruled out for a foul beforehand by the Uruguayan.
Malaga had stunned the Camp Nou with a 1-0 victory last season and they came within inches of taking the lead in extraordinary style as Juan Carlos’s effort from 60 yards flew just inches over the stranded Claudio Bravo’s goal.
Mascherano came close to being the unlikely man to break the deadlock when he headed against the crossbar moments later.
The home fans were then incensed as referee Santiago Jaime Latre turned down two strong penalty shouts as Miguel Torres appeared to handle the ball inside the area before Marcos Angeleri brought down Suarez.
Kameni then produced a trio of fine saves to deny Messi after the break as the European champions continued to be frustrated in front of goal.
Yet, for all his good work, Kameni was partly at fault for the goal as he could only parry Suarez’s cross from the left and the ball fell invitingly for Vermaelen to fire home from close range.
Elsewhere, Celta Vigo went top of the table as Nolito scored twice in a 3-0 win over 10-man Rayo Vallecano.
David Moyes’s Real Sociedad failed to find the net for a second consecutive game, though, as they played out a 0-0 draw with Sporting Gijon. – Agence France-Presse