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Cristiano Ronaldo brace helps Real Madrid topple Athletic Bilbao

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Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice as Real Madrid kept up the pressure on Primera Division title rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid with a 4-2 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Ronaldo gave the Merengues a dream start by netting a stunning goal inside three minutes but Javier Eraso levelled on 10 minutes after pouncing on an error by Raphael Varane, who was sent off late in the game for picking up two bookings.

James Rodriguez put the hosts ahead again with a curled finish on 37 minutes and Toni Kroos added to the lead on the stroke of half-time. Ronaldo notched his second goal in the closing minutes, before Gorka Elustondo got a consolation for Athletic.

A fourth consecutive home win under Zinedine Zidane lifted Real up to second in the table - two points ahead of Atletico and one ahead of Barcelona, who are both in action on Sunday, and the Catalans also have another game in hand.

Athletic held fourth-placed Villarreal to a goalless drew last weekend but a late red card for Inaki Williams ruled the in-form forward out of Saturday's trip to the capital.

Zidane was still without Gareth Bale following a setback in his recovery from a calf injury, so he stuck with Rodriguez in attacking midfield and named Mateo Kovacic ahead of Isco to give his team extra power in midfield to counter the notoriously physical Basque side.

The home team needed just two minutes to go in front, Ronaldo picking the ball up on the left and snaking his way into the box, beating a defender before sending the ball spinning into the far top corner.

Although the goals have kept flowing for the Portugal forward this term, he has been criticised for his all-round play, and this brilliant goal was reminiscent of the excellent solo strike he scored against Espanyol a fortnight earlier.

Kovacic might have doubled the lead a few minutes later but his close-range volley was blocked by Gorka Iraizoz, and Madrid then relinquished their advantage due to an embarrassing error by Varane.

The Frenchman tried to clear a through-ball but only succeeded in sliding it back towards goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who parried at the feet of Eraso and he slotted into the bottom corner.

This was the start of a strong spell from Athletic, and Navas had to dive to tip away a header from Aritz Aduriz, who moments later hit the crossbar from close range.

But Madrid restored their lead on 37 minutes, Rodriguez bending the ball into the corner from outside the area.

Kroos then gave Madrid extra reassurance right before the break, smashing the ball down the middle of the goal after turning just inside the area.

Madrid could have stretched their lead further in the second half.

Ronaldo hit the post after first blasting against the wall from a free-kick, while a dangerous-looking shot from Rodriguez was blocked unwittingly by the back of Karim Benzema.

Although less ruthless in front of goal, they had more control in the second period than the first, limiting Athletic to just one proper chance - a ball to the feet of Aduriz, but Navas raced off his line to foil the striker.

The shine was somewhat taken off the victory for Madrid by Varane getting sent off, although Ronaldo then struck his 21st goal of the season to go ahead of Luis Suarez at the top of La Liga's scoring charts.

Elustondo then reduced the deficit to two goals as the final minute approached, heading in a cross from Oscar de Marcos.

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