Gareth Bale returned to the Real Madrid side with a goal and an assist in Los Blancos’ exciting 4-2 win over Villarreal on Saturday evening.
The Welshman was forced to pull out of the Copa del Rey semifinal in the hours building up to kick-off, leading to rumours that he had still not fully recovered from a series of injuries which have troubled him since he arrived in Spain.
Carlo Ancelotti confirmed after Madrid beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 in that semifinal that he had left Bale out to keep him “fresh” for the league matches which Cristiano Ronaldo will miss through suspension—Villarreal, Getafe and Elche (h/t Football Espana).
We’d heard that before, though. The Italian had previously suggested the 24-year-old would return against Athletic Bilbao (h/t Marca) and then against Atletico, but we’d been kept waiting.
This time, though, Bale did return.
And within seven minutes, he’d really returned. Bale smelt the hesitancy in Jose Dorado’s defending and swooped in, dispossessing the former Real Betis centre-back and charging down on goal.
Faced with a one-on-one situation with Sergio Asenjo, he didn’t panic. He beautifully lifted the ball over the Villarreal stopper.
Buoyed by the early goal, Bale proceeded to cause problems down the right wing with confidence at every given opportunity.
He found Karim Benzema at the far post once, but the Frenchman couldn’t quite climb high enough to direct a header on target. Another Bale cross was turned back across the box by Benzema, but Luka Modric’s shot was well charged down.
Given the regularity with which Madrid’s No. 11 was beating his man, it was no surprise when he created the second goal of the match.
Once again he got to the byline, beating Jaume Costa, and his deflected cross was this time converted by Benzema.
If Bale had been the centre of attention for the opening half-hour, he took more of a back seat for the next hour as Jese Rodriguez and Benzema stole the plaudits.
However, Bale had every reason to be happy with a return which saw him score his 11th goal and lay on his eighth assist of a mixed start to life in La Liga.
Later on Saturday night, Atletico were beaten at Almeria, leaving them level with Madrid on 57 points at the top of the table and three points ahead of Barcelona—who had the chance to make it a three-way tie when they travelled south to play Sevilla on Sunday night.
Barca arrived in a rain-drenched Seville without the services of Neymar once again, although according to the Barcelona official website, he has been back in training since January 31.
At least they still had Lionel Messi in their ranks.
And it was the Argentine's delivery which helped bring them level after Alberto Moreno had given the home side an early lead.
Messi's delivery was floated to the back post, where Alexis Sanchez turned it into the back of the net with his back—there was a hint of offside to the goal, but it stood.
With half-time approaching, a soaking-wet Messi brilliantly edged Gerardo Martino's side into the lead.
Pedro raced down the left, rolling the ball back to the four-time Ballon d'Or winner. What followed was exquisite.
Messi slightly lifted the ball off the flooded surface with his first touch before expertly smashing the ball into the corner with his second touch. It was his first league goal from open play since he scored against Almeria in September.
Sevilla may have been equal to Barcelona for large parts of the game, but two Messi moments had La Blaugrana in front.
It was a patter which continued after the interval.
With the Sevilla resilience broken, Messi capitalised again and took his league tally to 11 for the season with another smart finish.
Cesc Fabregas came off the bench to add a fourth goal, but the fans who fill Camp Nou each week will hope the performance of Messi will signal him returning to his best form—it is going to be necessary with three sides locked at the top of the Primera Division.