Soldado treble sweeps aside Athletic
Roberto Soldado scored a hat-trick as Valencia strengthened their position in third place with a commanding win over Athletic Bilbao at San Mames.
The Spanish international took advantage of a weak backpass from Mikel San Jose to round Gorka Iraizoz and put the visitors in front just before half-time, and he doubled Valencia's lead 12 minutes after the break with another excellent finish from Jordi Alba's cut-back.
Things got worse when Andoni Iraola was then sent off for the hosts for a second bookable offence when he brought down Alba. Athletic's misery was complete with five minutes to go when referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes awarded a harsh penalty for a handball by San Jose and Soldado confidently stroked home from the spot.
Both sides had been in UEFA Europa League action in midweek, but Athletic's exertions in defeating Manchester United seemed to affect them more as they badly missed the presence of Fernando Llorente up front to act as a focal point.
Valencia, by contrast, were welcoming back their star striker in Soldado after he missed the return leg against PSV Eindhoven on Thursday. He wasted no time in showing how deadly he can be in front of goal four minutes before the break as he capitalised on San Jose's error to calmly round Iraizoz and roll the ball into the empty net.
Athletic started the second period much better but, despite their pressure, failed to create a clear-cut chance as Vicente Guaita comfortably dealt with a number of dangerous crosses into the box. Then against the run of play Valencia made it two when a fine pass from Sofiane Feghouli found Alba down the right and he laid the ball off to Soldado for the striker to smash past Iraizoz at his near post.
Ibai Gomez nearly pulled a goal back for the hosts as his clever free-kick was well saved by Guaita, but any hope of a comeback was extinguished moments later as Iraola was shown a second yellow card for clipping Alba's heels just outside the area.
Soldado was briefly denied his third by a good one-on-one save from Iraizoz, but the 26-year-old did not have to wait long to secure his fourth hat-trick of the season for club and country as he fired into the roof of the net from the penalty spot after Dani Parejo's cross hit San Jose on the arm.
Iraizoz made another good stop from Pablo Piatti in stoppage time but it mattered little as Valencia moved six points clear in third, while Athletic remain four points off the UEFA Champions League places in seventh.