MADRID: Cristiano Ronaldo hit his sixth hat-trick of the season as Real Madrid took a huge step towards winning La Liga on Sunday, coming from behind to beat Levante 4-2 and open a 10-point lead over Barcelona.
After Gustavo Cabral gave Levante a surprise early lead, Ronaldo got his first from the penalty spot following a handball by Vicente Iborra, who was also dismissed for his second yellow card.
Ronaldo headed home a Gonzalo Higuain cross after 49 minutes and then completed his hat-trick with a wonderful 30-yard strike which flew into the roof of the net.
An Arouna Kone header briefly gave a glimmer of hope for Levante but Karim Benzema slotted in a fourth for Real after 65 minutes.
While Barcelona, beaten 3-2 by Osasuna on Saturday, have stuttered on their travels, Real have been in ominous form winning 19 of 22 games and scoring 75 goals which has put them on course for their first league title since 2008.
Levante are the only team along with Barcelona to have beaten Real this season and when Cabral headed home a free-kick, which flicked off Sergio Ramos, after just four minutes, Real must have feared another setback.
But Ronaldo's penalty, a minute before the break, helped settled their nerves.
“There are still a lot of points and a lot of matches ahead with all of them difficult because there is a lot at stake,” said Real coach Jose Mourinho.
“We need 39 points more to be champions -- 13 victories but these 10 points now give us a margin for error.”
Mourinho also took the opportunity to praise Ronaldo who now has 27 league goals this season and whose hat-trick represented a landmark moment for the Bernabeu.
“It was a goal to celebrate, it was fantastic as everyone could see and the 4,000th goal here.”
Mourinho also could not resist a criticism of Barcelona.
“In some stadiums when you pass and pass the ball they consider it wonderful but here they whistle and for that reason the players want to continue attacking and taking risks,” he said.
“We won't win the league through goal average though but by points and so it doesn't matter if you win 8-0 or less.”
Despite their 10-point deficit, Barcelona captain Carles Puyol says the champions will not throw in the towel.
“The league is not lost but it is going to be complicated. This team always fights to the end and what we have to do is try and win every week. We have to concentrate on ourselves and see where we get,” he said.
Valencia moved eight points clear of the chasing pack in third place with an emphatic 4-0 victory over relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon which brought to an end a run of five league games without a win.
Second-from-bottom Sporting started solidly under coach Inaki Tejada in his second game in charge, but after a cagey opening spell Valencia had the first chance with Aritz Aduriz firing wide.
Then Sofiane Feghouli gave them the opener after 33 minutes with a fine finish from a Jeremy Mathieu cross.
Sporting were unable to bounce back and Aduriz missed another excellent opening before the break while, after the restart, Valencia dominated the match as the visitors' rearguard was unable to cope.
A deflected Feghouli shot off Alberto Botia gave Valencia a two-goal cushion and then in injury time substitute Jonas Goncalves bagged a double to add gloss to the win.
The teams are now bunching up below Valencia with Espanyol still level with Levante on 32 points after losing 2-0 at home to Zaragoza.
Atletico Madrid are a point behind after they drew 0-0 away to Racing Santander and level with Osasuna and Malaga who beat Mallorca 3-1.
Villarreal continued their upturn in form under new coach Jose Francisco Molina and their 3-1 victory over Granada was their third win in four games with the other match a 0-0 draw with Barcelona.
Marco Ruben put the home side ahead after 16 minutes from a tight angle but there was little between the teams and Inigo Lopez was unlucky to see a header come back off a post.
After the break Lopez headed Granada level and the home fans were becoming frustrated when Borja Valero volleyed Villarreal back in front with a moment of magic.
Still Granada looked to battle back but an own-goal from goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who punched the ball into his own net, gave a scoreline that flattered Villarreal.