- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Karim Benzema scored twice as Real Madrid brushed off an early goal and thrashed Real Sociedad 4-1 without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, ensuring it remained top of the Spanish league on Saturday.

Defending champion Atletico Madrid stayed in contact with its crosstown rivals before the two clash next week, after Mario Mandzukic also grabbed a brace of early goals in its 3-1 victory at Eibar.

Ronaldo watched from the stands at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium as he served the first of a two-game ban for kicking a Cordoba player last weekend.

His team didn’t miss him, though, as David Moyes’ Sociedad failed to build on a goal scored 36 seconds into the match, displaying little of the verve from its stunning 4-2 victory over Madrid in August before the arrival of the former Manchester United manager.

“As has happened in other games, we didn’t start well, and we conceded a goal,” Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said. “The same happened at Cordoba and against Atletico in the Copa (del Rey). We have to improve that. Then we defended well and we pressed up front. We played very well in the second half.”

Madrid opened a four-point gap over Barcelona and Atletico. Barcelona hosts Villarreal on Sunday.

Madrid has a game in hand that it will play against Sevilla on Wednesday before it turns to the derby at Atletico.

Elsewhere, Celta Vigo and Granada both earned much-needed victories.

Only Geronimo Rulli’s goalkeeping spared Sociedad a bigger defeat as it slipped into 12th place and remained the only team yet to win away in the league this season.

Sociedad defender Aritz Elustondo headed in his first goal for the Basque club moments after kickoff, but Madrid never looked back after James Rodriguez headed the hosts level from Marcelo’s pass in the third minute.

Dangerous early on, Sociedad didn’t threaten after forward Carlos Vela hurt his right knee and had to be substituted in the 17th.

Sergio Ramos blasted in a rebound before halftime, and Benzema made it 3-1 from Gareth Bale’s assist soon after the break. He then struck an exquisite second goal in the 76th when he received the ball near the corner of the box and curled an unstoppable strike around Rulli.

“I knew when I struck it the shot was good,” Benzema said. “But I didn’t know it was going to be so beautiful.”

Atletico bounced back from its midweek elimination from the Copa del Rey to Barcelona with a commanding win under less than ideal playing conditions.

Because the muddy field at Ipurua Stadium slowed the ball and stopped passes short of their recipients, Atletico smartly attacked through the air.

Antoine Griezmann tallied his 11th league goal in the seventh minute, and lobbed for Mandzukic to redirect into the net in the 23rd. Two minutes later, Mandzukic hit in his 10th league goal after Eibar failed to clear. Federico Piovaccari got eighth-place Eibar’s goal one minute from time.

“We wanted to attack through Griezmann on the good side of the pitch and avoid the areas where the ball wouldn’t circulate,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said.

Celta rose back into 10th after it beat Cordoba 1-0 from Manuel “Nolito” Agudo’s beautiful curling strike for its first victory in 11 rounds. Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo was sent off late for going on the pitch during a drawn-out refereeing decision.

At the bottom of the table, Granada ended a 16-round winless streak dating to September by beating 10-man Elche 1-0 to provisionally escape from last place and climb free of the relegation zone.

Granada’s Jhon Cordoba scrambled in its second-half winner before Damian Suarez left Elche with 10 men with his second booking in the 70th.


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