Carlo Ancelotti heaped praise upon midfield duo Toni Kroos and Isco after watching 10-man Real Madrid return to winning ways after two straight losses by easily overcoming Espanyol 3-0.
First half goals from James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale set Los Blancos on their way before Fabio Coentrao was harshly sent off and substitute Nacho completed the scoring.
Ancelotti believed his team’s control of the central area of the field was the crucial factor in their victory, saying: “Kroos is playing at an optimum level when you consider the fact he’s a new signing. And Isco has been playing very well for a long time. That doesn’t surprise me because he’s had continuity, which he didn’t get last season.”
Madrid came into the match on the back of defeats to Valencia last Sunday and Atletico in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday. It was unclear if they were beset by nerves but Espanyol started brightly and strikers Sergio Garcia and Felipe Caic-edo both had presentable opportunities in the opening two minutes.
The deadlock was soon broken with a beauty of a goal as Bale pinged a magnificent 50-yard crossfield pass into the path of Ronaldo, and his first-time lay-off allowed the onrushing James to strike left-footed into the net.
With Madrid comfortable, the second followed when Isco was fouled on the edge of the box and Bale stepped up to thrash home a brilliant left-footed free-kick via the inside of the right post.
The hosts then relaxed a little too much, with passes going astray and Espanyol given an opportunity to rally, but despite getting into some dangerous positions the visitors were unable to seriously trouble Casillas before the break.
The early stages of the second period were marked by a horrible high-speed collision between Coentrao and Jose Canas which resulted in both players receiving lengthy treatment.
The incident appeared to be as a 50-50 challenge, but when Coentrao struggled to his feet he was shown a straight red card by referee David Fernandez Borbalan.
Despite being reduced in numbers, the hosts continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack as Espanyol proceeded to throw more men forward in search of a route back into the game.
Ronaldo had two opportunities but, looking somewhat out of sorts, lacked his trademark precision by dragging the first wide and allowing the second to be blocked by hesitating before shooting.
An even better chance was squandered by Bale, who was released through the middle by Isco and raced clear before prodding his shot wide.
That prompted a frustrated reaction from Ronaldo and whistles from some home fans who felt he should have passed – an increasingly recurring theme after the Welshman also drew criticism for failing to pass in a similar position during the loss at Valencia.
Those jeers soon turned to cheers, however, as Nacho wrapped up the game with his team’s third, finding space to receive a cross from Alvaro Arbeloa and drilling a firm shot past the helpless Kiko Casilla.
Elsewhere in Spain, Valencia wasted an opportunity to gain ground on their rivals for a Champions League spot as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Celta Vigo.
Villarreal stretched their unbeaten run to 13 matches but were unable to put any more daylight between themselves and rival European hopefuls Malaga as the two teams shared a 1-1 draw.
Chelsea took sole possession of first place in the Premier League table after they beat Newcastle United 2-0 on Saturday and Manchester City drew 1-1 at Everton.
Chelsea began the day dead-level with City, but with the defending champions dropping points for only the second time in 10 matches, Jose Mourinho's side moved two points clear.
Chelsea took the lead in the 41st minute when Oscar tapped in Branislav Ivanovic's cross after Willian took a quick corner and they went on to add a delightfully constructed second goal just before the hour, with Diego Costa gathering a clever back-heel from Oscar and drilling in his 15th goal of the campaign.
At Goodison Park, City went ahead in the 74th minute when Fernandinho helped a shot from David Silva over the line with his head, but Steven Naismith equalised four minutes later, glancing home a cross from Leighton Baines.
Tottenham Hotspur can move into the top four if they win at Crystal Palace later on Saturday, with third-place Manchester United and fourth-place Southampton facing off at Old Trafford on Sunday.
West Ham United spurned a chance to climb to fifth place after being held to a 1-1 draw at Swansea City. Andy Carroll put West Ham ahead in the 43rd minute with a fine effort, chesting down a high ball and then dancing across the box before slamming a left-foot shot into the top-right corner from 15 yards.
But Swansea equalised in the 74th minute when a header from France striker Bafetimbi Gomis hit the post, struck West Ham midfielder Mark Noble and rebounded into the net for an own goal.
Burnley climbed out of the relegation zone and dragged Queens Park Rangers into the bottom three with a 2-1 home win over Harry Redknapp's side. Scott Arfield's opener was cancelled out by a penalty from former Burnley striker Charlie Austin, but Danny Ings gave the hosts victory in the 37th minute by rolling the ball past Rob Green after a neat piece of control.
Bottom club Leicester City closed to within two points of safety by winning 1-0 at home to Aston Villa, with Paul Konchesky slamming in the only goal in first-half stoppage time.
In his first league game as manager, Tony Pulis saw West Bromwich Albion climb to 14th after Saido Berahino's 78th-minute goal secured a 1-0 home win over Hull City.
Lazar Markovic scored the only goal as improving Liverpool provisionally closed to within four points of the Premier League's top four by winning 1-0 at Sunderland on Saturday.
At a gusty Stadium of Light, the 20-year-old Serbia winger's ninth-minute strike — his first Premier League goal — enabled Liverpool to extend their unbeaten run to five league games.
Gus Poyet's Sunderland, who had Liam Bridcutt sent off for two bookable offences, remain three points above the relegation zone with only one win from their last 11 games.
Having earlier seen a penalty appeal waved away after tumbling under a challenge from Wes Brown, Markovic put Liverpool ahead when he gathered a pass from Fabio Borini and prodded the ball between Costel Pantilimon's legs.
Markovic then hit the bar with a spectacular, improvised scissors kick as Liverpool dominated, while former Sunderland loanee Borini rounded Pantilimon, only to find the side-netting.
The visitors lost Steven Gerrard at half-time, with Dejan Lovren coming on, but their position was strengthened in the 49th minute when Bridcutt was shown a second yellow card for impeding Emre Can.
Moments later, Adam Johnson left the Liverpool crossbar shuddering with a swerving drive from distance, but Brendan Rodgers's side finished strongly, with Pantilimon saving from Mario Balotelli and Philippe Coutinho.
Co-leaders Chelsea and Manchester City are both in action later on Saturday, with Chelsea hosting managerless Newcastle United and City visiting out-of-form Everton.
The two pace-setters were left dead-level on points, goal difference, goals scored and goals conceded after the New Year's Day fixtures.
Tottenham Hotspur can move into the top four if they win at Crystal Palace, with third-place Manchester United and fourth-place Southampton facing off at Old Trafford on Sunday.