BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — A beleaguered Zinedine Zidane got the win he needed to take some pressure off as Real Madrid's manager.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored two first-half penalties to lead them past Valencia 4-1 on Saturday, breaking Madrid's four-game winless streak away from home in the Spanish league.
The lopsided win at the ground of the sensation of La Liga this season came after the criticism of Zidane intensified this week following Madrid's shock exit from the Copa del Rey quarterfinals to modest Leganes.
"I will always be under scrutiny, every day, that won't change until the end," Zidane said after the win at Mestalla. "What I have to do is to keep working with my players, and today I have to congratulate them for the match they played. To play well here and win 4-1 is not easy."
Out of the cup and out of reach of runaway leader Barcelona in the league, Madrid's chances of salvaging the campaign hinge on bettering Paris Saint-Germain when they meet in the Champions League round-of-16 in three weeks.
Despite being the coach that has led Madrid to back-to-back European Cups, Zidane was in dire need of a strong performance by his team against a quality opponent before facing the French leader.
Madrid has only games against Levante and Real Sociedad before it turns to its first showdown with Neymar's PSG on Feb. 14.
"We know what those games (against PSG) mean for us, but we have to keep fighting for each game in the league so we can arrive to those games (vs. PSG) after a good run of results," Madrid midfielder Luka Modric said. "It's crazy, I can't believe that people question Zidane after all that he has done with us."
Madrid, which still has a match in hand, remained in fourth place but closed to within two points of Valencia in third. Madrid trails leader Barcelona by a massive 16 points before the pacesetter hosts Alaves on Sunday.
REAL MADRID EXPLOITS CHARITY
Zidane started the strike trio of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale for the first time this season, but Madrid's best attack turned out to be the reckless defending by Valencia right back Martin Montoya.
Ronaldo converted his first penalty in the 16th minute after he led a counterattack from a Valencia corner kick starting in the other area that was stopped only when Montoya fouled the Madrid forward in the box.
Montoya gifted Ronaldo the chance to get a second goal in the 38th after he slammed into Benzema from behind while the two jumped to dispute a ball inside the area.
Ronaldo converted the resulting spot kick to take his tally to eight goals in the league, half of which have come in the last two rounds.
Valencia forward Goncalo Guedes was substituted at halftime, apparently because of an injury.
Santi Mina headed in Dani Parejo's corner kick to pull one back for the hosts.
Madrid needed goalkeeper Keylor Navas to use his foot to parry Parejo's strike to protect its lead before Marcelo put it beyond doubt with six to play.
Marcelo combined with substitute Marco Asensio to penetrate the area before firing under goalkeeper Neto.
Toni Kroos added a fourth goal with a shot from the edge of the area in the 90th.
Villarreal stayed in the hunt for a top-four finish and a Champions League berth after routing Real Sociedad 4-2 at home.
Villarreal stayed a point behind Madrid in fifth place thanks to goals from Victor Ruiz, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Bacca and Samu Castillejo, who all scored in the first 35 minutes.
Ivan "Ivi" Lopez scored in the 80th and 84th for Levante to draw with 10-man Deportivo La Coruna 2-2.
Deportivo was leading thanks to goals by Adrian Lopez and Florin Andone despite Celso Borges being sent off for two bookings by the 34th.
Malaga remained in last place after drawing with Girona 0-0 in the home debut of coach Jose Gonzalez.