Karim Benzema netted two identical headers to secure Real Madrid a place in the Champions League last 16 with a 2-0 win over Borussia Moenchengladbach on Wednesday, easing the pressure on coach Zinedine Zidane.
Record 13-time champions Madrid started the night in third place, at risk of failing to qualify from the group stage for the first time in their history and dropping into the Europa League, but delivered an assured performance at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium.
Madrid finished as group winners on 10 points, ahead of runners-up Gladbach on eight despite the defeat, as Shakhtar Donetsk and Inter Milan drew 0-0 in the other Group B clash.
President Florentino Perez was spotted in the tunnel before the game and his presence seemed to focus Madrid minds, as they put on their best performance of the season in their most important game so far.
“It was a good game for us,” Benzema told Movistar. “Each match is a final and I think that if we always play how we did today, no team can hurt us.
“This was a very difficult game, we started it well and with the desire to show that we are the best.”
Makeshift right-back Lucas Vazquez curled in a cross and Benzema produced a fine header to break the deadlock after just nine minutes.
Madrid kept an iron grip on the game until Gladbach forward Alassane Plea broke free but dinked wide of Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
Benzema doubled the lead with a clone of his first strike, nodding home from Rodrygo’s cross from the right in the 32nd minute.
Zidane hails ‘spectacular’ display
Madrid came close to adding a third from the same avenue, with Vazquez crossing for the evergreen Luka Modric, but Yann Sommer tipped his effort onto the post.
The Croatian midfielder, 35, lashed home shortly afterwards but the strike was ruled out for an offside call against Raphael Varane in the build-up.
Madrid continued to dominate after the break, looking back to their best ahead of the weekend derby clash in La Liga with Atletico Madrid.
Sommer made a brilliant save to claw out a header from Madrid captain Sergio Ramos on his return from injury, with Benzema crashing the rebound against the crossbar.
Vazquez drilled an effort against the near post as Zidane’s rampant side coasted to victory, allowing the coach some breathing room after a troubled start to the season.
Two defeats by Shakhtar Donetsk had left Madrid in a tight spot in the Champions League and their situation was compounded by disappointing losses against Cadiz, Valencia and Alaves in La Liga.
“The objective was to finish first and we did it,” a proud Zidane told Movistar. “We played a spectacular game today. I think it was our most complete of the season, from minute one to the end we did very well.
“I’ve been a footballer and football is like this, you can’t always play well, it’s impossible. Try to, yes, we will always try to. I’m happy for the players, they are the most important thing and I am here for them.”