Karim Benzema scored twice, while Gareth Bale and Jese Rodriguez added a goal and an assist apiece as Real Madrid shrugged off the suspension of Cristiano Ronaldo with a 4-2 victory at home to Villarreal on Saturday in La Liga at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Ronaldo, who drew a red card in Real Madrid's previous league match, served the first part of a three-match league ban and thus played no part in the match. Though not a direct replacement for the Ballon d'Or winner, Bale did his part to make sure Ronaldo's absence was not detrimental with a goal and an assist before half-time.
Benzema doubled Real's advantage midway through the first half before Mario Gaspar pulled one back in spectacular style for Villarreal just before half-time. Jese restored Real's two-goal lead in the second half before Giovani Dos Santos grabbed Villarreal's second with a superb free kick. Benzema sealed the points with his second—Real's fourth—14 minutes from time.
The win took Real Madrid level on 57 points, at least temporarily, with league leaders Atletico Madrid. Atletico were set to play at Almeria later Saturday and would retake the top spot with a win or draw. Defending champions Barcelona, who have 54 points, play at Sevilla on Sunday.
Villarreal remain in fifth place with 40 points, three behind Athletic Bilbao.
“We knew Villarreal were a team that plays very good football," Jese said after the match, per Inside Spanish Football. "They made things difficult for us, we always need to win at home and that’s what we did."
Jese added: "I’m very happy with the work I’m doing. My objective is to continue this run of form and to keep working hard."
Real Madrid 4-2 Villarreal FT: Shots(OT) 13(6) - 10(3), Possession 62% - 38%, Tackles 18 - 22 http://t.co/jfOEhpao2m— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 8, 2014
Rivals Real and Atletico are competing for honours on multiple fronts this season. As the title race wears on, the two will play again Tuesday in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal.
Real won the first leg 3-0, and the combined momentum from the cup and league could be a boon heading into the stretch run. First, though, was the business of beating Villarreal on Saturday.
Following the win over Atletico on Wednesday, Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti made six changes to his starting XI. Diego Lopez returned to goal in place of Iker Casillas, while Dani Carvajal and Marcelo replaced full-backs Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao. Asier Illarramendi started in midfield, while Jese—who took Ronaldo's place on the left—and Bale came into the attack.
Bale and Real needed little time to find the scoresheet.
Seizing on Chechu Dorado's mistake in the seventh minute, Bale took possession outside the box, accelerated toward the goal and chipped into the net over Sergio Asenjo for the opening goal. It was Bale's 11th goal for Real Madrid in all competitions following his world-record transfer from Tottenham Hotspur last summer.
Luka Modric had a chance to double Real's lead three minutes later, but this time Dorado did well to block the shot.
Benzema doubled the lead in the 25th minute, redirecting Bale's cross into the net off Asenjo. The goal was Benzema's 12th of the league campaign, one more than he scored all of last season.
It wasn't all good news for Real in the first half, though, as the Blancos' left-back issues resurfaced. Marcelo was forced off with an injury in the 18th minute, replaced by Coentrao, and at half-time, Coentrao was replaced by Alvaro Arbeloa.
By that time, Villarreal had already pulled one back, with the goal coming from the spot Marcelo vacated.
The goal came in the 43rd minute via Mario, and it was worthy of being the first goal scored by a visiting team at the Bernabeu in 2014. The right-back burst forward into the attack and accepted a pass from Javier Aquino before unleashing an unstoppable shot into the top corner at the far post.
Real came close to a third goal in the 55th minute, when Bale freed Carvajal on the right with a well-timed through ball. But Carvajal rolled his shot just wide of the far post.
The third goal arrived nine minutes later via Jese, who ran onto Angel Di Maria's through ball on the left side of the box and lightly tapped a measured finish past Asenjo. The 20-year-old has scored one goal in each of his last four appearances in all competitions.
Once again, though, Villarreal pulled a goal back in style.
Jonathan Pereira won a free kick in the 67th minute, and after a Real Madrid substitution, Dos Santos beat the wall and Lopez two minutes later with a picturesque free kick to make it 3-2.
Giovani Dos Santos: Has scored or assisted 7 goals in his last 5 league appearances— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 8, 2014
Real once again restored their two-goal cushion in the 76th minute. The hosts burst forward on the counter following a Villarreal attack, and at the edge of the box, Jese laid off for Benzema, who tucked his shot into the bottom corner for a 4-2 lead.
The fourth goal seemed to take the fight out of Villarreal, and Real coasted to victory over the final 14 minutes.
Marcelino asked if he is satisfied with performance despite result: "No [long pause[ if I was, I would not deserve to be Villarreal coach."— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) February 8, 2014
|Angel Di Maria||8||9|
|Fabio Coentrao (for Marcelo, 18')||6||N/A|
|Alvaro Arbeloa (for Coentrao, 46')||N/A||5|
|Xabi Alonso (for Di Maria, 68')||N/A||8|
Real Madrid play at city rivals Atletico Madrid on Tuesday in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal. Real won the first leg 3-0 at the Bernabeu.
Los Blancos return to the league next Sunday with a trip to Getafe.
Villarreal host Celta Vigo in the league next Saturday.