La Liga's top three teams all won their games on Saturday, with Barcelona's 5-0 victory over Levante (fourth) opening up the gap between third and the best of the rest to four points.
Third-place Valencia started the home game against Espanyol with top scorer Roberto Soldado on the bench as a precautionary measure ahead of this week's decisive final Champions League group match at Chelsea. But a rugged performance by the visitor forced coach Unai Emery to throw his leading striker into the fray with 75 minutes on the clock and 1-1 on the scoreboard.
The move paid off almost immediately when Soldado barged his way to the near post position at a corner taken by Tino Costa (whose penalty had given Valencia an early lead) and swiveled his neck with great precision to head home what turned out to be the winner and the former Real Madrid youth-teamer's ninth goal of the Liga season.
Real had to maintain full concentration for over an hour in front of 23,000 spectators at Sporting Gijón's El Molinón stadium before a sweeping move was rounded off with aplomb by Cristiano Ronaldo for the leader's second goal. Ángel di María supplied the pass for number two after opening the scoring in the first half. Marcelo embellished the result on 90 minutes for 0-3.
But Barça went a couple better, with Cesc Fàbregas scoring two in the first 33 minutes to make it a somewhat stress-free night for the champion in front of the Camp Nou faithful seven days before the clásico at Real's Bernabéu stadium. Young forward Isaac Cuenca made it 3-0 against Levante and Leo Messi and Alexis Sánchez rounded off the night.
Elsewhere, Racing Santander clawed its way off the bottom with a 1-0 win over Villarreal.
Sunday's early results: Atlético 3-1 Rayo Vallecano; Sociedad 3-2 Málaga; Osasuna 2-1 Betis.