Goals from Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema earned Real Madrid a 3-1 victory on Tuesday night against an Athletic Club side that played with just 10 men from the 13th minute onwards at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.
A very early Raul Garcia red card made this an uphill task for the Basques from the beginning, but Ander Capa did equalise at the start of the second half, before two second half Benzema goals made the difference.
Athletic started the match well and Inaki Williams set up Oscar de Marcos for an early chance, before Williams was involved again as the 13th minute and the decisive moment of the first half arrived.
He played a neat one-two with De Marcos to move into the area and was about to shoot when he fell down under a Dani Carvajal challenge. Jesus Gil Manzano waved play on and, just seconds later, Raul Garcia was sent off for a second yellow card for his second poor challenge on Kroos in the space of five minutes.
When no booking was shown to Vinicius for an apparent dive inside the area minutes later and when Real Madrid called for a penalty for an involuntary Capa handball in the area, the 10 men of Athletic started to get angry. But, they went and turned that anger into an excellent defensive performance.
Over the next 20 minutes, they limited to Real Madrid to off target shots from distance from Fede Valverde, Kroos and Vinicius, plus a Sergio Ramos header at a corner that also failed to test Unai Simon.
In the final minutes of the half, though, Real Madrid really stepped it up. First, Simon had to make a reaction save as a Luka Modric cross was turned goalward by Vinicius from just a couple of yards out. Then, in a strange looking piece of play, Vinicius headed another effort off Valverde, who almost prodded the ricochet into the net.
As Gaizka Garitano was preparing to give his 10 men their half time team talk, the breakthrough arrived as Vinicius was able to lay the ball off for Kroos to powerfully pass into the bottom of the net, a classic Kroos goal.
The 1-0 was virtually the last kick of the first half, before Athletic equalised right at the beginning of the second half. In the seventh minute of the second period, Capa embarked on a run forward, played a one-two with De Marcos and then put the ball past Thibaut Courtois at the second attempt, after the Belgian had parried his initial effort.
One minute later, Vinicius turned the ball past Simon, also at the second attempt, but that goal was ruled out for an offside in the build-up.
Looking for solutions, Zidane sent on Isco and Marco Asensio for Valverde and Vinicius, but those changes almost seemed to sap more energy out of Los Blancos than they added.
The French coach then prepared the introduction of Rodrygo, but while the Brazilian was waiting on the sidelines to come on he saw his teammates retake the lead as Benzema headed a Carvajal cross into the net.
At that point, the home side started to play keep-the-ball and had the perfect midfield passers to do, but the 10 men of Athletic had one excellent late chance for Mikel Vesga that Courtois stopped to launch a counter attack that Benzema converted for the third of the game.
It wasn't the most convincing performance from Real Madrid, but they move joint-top of the table and are now level on points with Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid.
3.- Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, Mendy; Valverde (Isco, min. 64), Modric, Kroos; Lucas Vazquez (Rodrygo, min. 75), Benzema, Vinicius (Asensio, min. 64)
1.- Athletic Club: Simon; Capa (Lekue, min. 80), Yeray, Martinez, Yuri; Garcia, Vencedor (Vesga, min. 67); De Marcos (Muniain, min. 80), Raul Garcia, Berenguer (Cordoba, min. 59); Williams (Villalibre, min. 67)
Goals: 1-0, min. 45+1: Kroos; 1-1, min. 52; Capa; 2-1, min. 74: Benzema; 3-1, min. 90+2: Benzema
Referee: Jesus Gil Manzano (Extremadura)
Yellow cards: Lucas Vazquez (Min. 42) for Real Madrid, Raul Garcia (Min. 8) and Yeray (Min. 80) for Athletic Club
Red cards: Raul Garcia (Min. 13)
Stadium: Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano
Source: Marca / Euan McTear