BARCELONA, Spain — Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick to help Real Madrid crush Espanyol 6-0 and stay in touch with Barcelona at the top of the Spanish league on Sunday.
Madrid bounced back from its 1-1 draw at Real Betis last weekend with another dominant display in coach Zinedine Zidane’s third game in charge at the Santiago Bernabeu, where he won his first two matches 5-0 and 5-1 after replacing Rafa Benitez.
Goals by Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez either side of a penalty earned and converted by Ronaldo had Madrid 3-0 ahead after just 16 minutes.
Ronaldo went on a spectacular dribble past two defenders before blasting in the fourth before halftime. He completed his treble late, before Oscar Duarte scored on own goal on his debut.
"The team is working well, in three weeks Zizou (Zidane) has done a phenomenal job," Ronaldo said with another ball to add to his collection tucked under his arm. "The players are feeling better and are in better shape. That's why we are getting these results."
In third place, Madrid closed to one point behind Atletico Madrid after it lost 2-1 at Barcelona on Saturday. Barcelona, which has a game in hand, is four points ahead of Madrid.
"We are four points behind and we may be trailing by seven," Zidane said. "It's difficult, but I still have hope for this league. It isn't over."
Elsewhere, Valencia lost its first league home match since November 2014 after Sporting Gijon claimed a 1-0 victory at Mestalla Stadium to climb out of the relegation zone.
Kevin Gameiro led Sevilla to a 3-1 win over bottom-side Levante, while Las Palmas got a 90th-minute goal to edge 10-man Celta Vigo 2-1 to also escape the bottom three.
Ronaldo had scored five goals in an identical 6-0 demolition of Espanyol back in their first meeting in September.
And the Portugal forward bullied the Catalan club again with three more goals to pull level with Barcelona's Luis Suarez as the competition's leading scorers with 19 each. Benzema is next with 18.
Espanyol was without five of its regular starters in attack: Felipe Caicedo was injured, Gerard Moreno and Victor Alvarez were suspended, and Marco Asensio and Jorge Franco couldn't play due to a clause in the deal that Espanyol struck to take them on loan from Madrid this season.
It showed, with the visitors offering no resistance to the onslaught by Madrid's stars as they ruined the debut of goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis.
Benzema headed in Rodriguez's cross in the eighth before Ronaldo made it 2-0 from the spot after he was brought down by Enzo Roco four minutes later.
Rodriguez soon got his first goal since November when his deflected strike caught Arlauskis out of position.
"They scored every chance they had in the first 15 minutes," Espanyol coach Constantin Galca said.
Espanyol mustered a meek threat just before the break that was wasted by Salva Sevilla, and Madrid romped right back to the other end, where Ronaldo deftly dribbled around two defenders before blasting the ball beyond Arlauskis.
Ronaldo thumped in substitute Jese Rodriguez's cross in the 82nd.
Valencia coach Gary Neville's winless streak in the league reached eight matches since the former Manchester United defender took over in December.
Sporting striker Antonio Sanabria netted his 10th goal of the season by converting a penalty in the 50th minute after Danilo fouled Jonathan "Jony" Rodriguez in the area.
Valencia had gone 22 home matches without a loss in the competition since a 1-0 defeat to Barcelona on Nov. 30, 2014. The defeat to Sporting dropped it to 12th place, 19 points from its objective of a top-four finish and a place in next season's Champions League.
While Valencia slid to only five points from the relegation zone, Sevilla's 10th straight league victory at Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium lifted it into fifth place.
Gameiro scored one goal and set up Vicente Iborra for another before Giuseppe Rossi got his first goal since joining Levante. Sevilla substitute Yevhen Konopylanka secured the points in the 76th with an unstoppable strike just under the bar.
In the Canary Islands, Willian Jose poked the ball home while falling on his backside to earn Las Palmas' late win. Celta, which slipped to seventh place, lost Fabian Orellana to a second yellow card for diving in the box with the score at 1-1 in the 72nd.