Karim Benzema scored a late double as Real Madrid snatched a 2-0 victory at 10-man Real Valladolid on Friday to leapfrog Barcelona at the top of LaLiga.
Carlo Ancelotti's side looked set to be frustrated at the Jose Zorrilla Stadium in their first game after the World Cup, with Benzema squandering a gilt-edged first-half chance.
However, the France international – who missed Qatar 2022 through injury – made amends as he converted from the penalty spot with seven minutes remaining before sealing victory six minutes later.
Valladolid saw forward Sergio Leon sent off for dissent after the award of Benzema's penalty as Madrid dug deep to go one point clear of Barca, who play their game in hand at home to Espanyol on Saturday.
Madrid's appeals for a 10th-minute penalty were dismissed despite Javi Sanchez appearing to handle on the line after blocking a drilled effort from Marco Asensio.
Benzema inexplicably blazed over from six yards after Jordi Masip parried Vinicius Junior's strike, before Thibaut Courtois expertly denied Alvaro Aguado prior to half-time.
Antonio Rudiger wastefully headed wide from Toni Kroos' corner four minutes into the second half as Madrid continued to struggle against the well-drilled hosts.
Courtois then produced another fine stop from Leon's header, while Masip pushed Benzema's low curler around the post.
However, Madrid's big chance came when Sanchez was adjudged to have handled from the resulting corner by VAR, with Benzema firing into the bottom-left corner from 12 yards after Leon was dismissed for his protests to the officials.
The Madrid striker made sure of all three points after a selfless Eduardo Camavinga pass allowed him to finish past Masip.
What does it mean? Underwhelming Madrid snatch valuable win
Madrid were far from their best before the World Cup, falling to defeat against Rayo Vallecano and sharing the spoils with Girona before defeating Cadiz.
Ancelotti's side had similar struggles here but recorded a much-needed win with their fourth straight away victory in LaLiga over Valladolid, who have failed to win in their last 14 games in the competition against Los Blancos.
Tougher tests will follow for the champions, and they will have to improve on their initial low benchmark for the second half of this unprecedented season as they battle Barca for the title.
Benzema banishes World Cup woes
Benzema was absent for France's run to the final in Qatar, though reports suggested he was fit to return for the showpiece defeat to Argentina on penalties.
The Ballon d'Or winner may have squandered a great first-half chance on his club return, but he responded well to drag Madrid to yet another late win – a fitting end to their 2022.
More needed from Vinicius
Vinicius became just the second player to reach 200 dribbles attempted in Europe's top five leagues in 2022 after Kylian Mbappe (207).
However, his link-up play left a lot to be desired as he completed just 15 passes – the fewest of any Madrid starter – to leave his attacking partners with little support.
Madrid head to fourth-tier side Cacereno in the Copa del Rey round of 32 on Tuesday, the day before Valladolid visit Alaves in the same competition.