Real Madrid moved, at least temporarily, level on points with Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga after a 4-2 victory over Villarreal at the Bernabeu. The home side always appeared to have an element of control and established a 2-0 lead by the 25-minute mark courtesy of a goal for the retuning Gareth Bale before the Welshman set up Karim Benzema. But Villarreal bounced back with a stunning goal from Mario and did likewise through a Giovani dos Santos free-kick after Jese had reestablished Madrid’s two-goal edge in the second half. Those efforts were to prove in vain, though, as Benzema struck his second of the match to seal the win.
After dropping points against Athletic Bilbao last week, it was a necessary return to winning ways for Madrid as they look to come out on top in what promises to be the most keenly contested title race in recent memory. All eyes now turn to Atletico’s match at Almeria on Saturday evening to see if Madrid’s rivals can reestablish their advantage.
Particularly pleasing for Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti was that it was a win secured without Cristiano Ronaldo, who was serving the first match of his three-game suspension. Bale stepped into the breach impressively early on and when his impact faded Jese came to the fore and continued his recent eye-catching form to extend his goal-scoring run to four successive matches.
Jese and Madrid picked up right where they left following their fine victory over rivals Atletico in the Copa del Rey in midweek, although they were given a big helping hand by their opponents. Chechu Dorado dallied far too long on the ball on the edge of his own box, allowing Bale to easily nip in and intercept. From there the winger narrowed in on goal and lifted the ball coolly over Sergio Asenjo to give his side the lead.
Bale continued to be a threat going down the right. His low cross was taken off the toes of Benzema before Luka Modric’s goal-bound effort was blocked by a Villarreal defender. But the second goal was not long in coming. Bale turned on the after-burners to breeze past Villarreal left back Jaume Costa and get to the byline before dinking the ball up to the near post where Benzema arrived to prod home a shot that went in off Asenjo. The goal took the France striker onto 12 La Liga goals for the campaign and already past the tally he ended with last season.
From there a comfortable win and an extension of Madrid’s lead might have been expected. Instead the hosts started becoming less incisive going forward, while Villarreal were slowly posing more of a threat. Dos Santos, in particular, missed a glorious chance to set up Moi Gomez with a clean strike on goal. In truth, though, the goal that got Villarreal back into the contest came out of nowhere. Mario ran onto Javier Aquino’s pass breaking just inside the area down the right but, sandwiched between Fabio Coentrao and Sergio Ramos, he appeared to have nothing on. Instead the right-back unleashed an unstoppable drive into the top corner past a bewildered Diego Lopez. It was the first goal that Madrid had conceded at the Bernabeu in 2014 and it had taken some strike to breach their defenses.
Madrid had to deal with another defensive adjustment at half-time with Coentrao, who had earlier taken the place of Marcelo, forced off to be replaced by Alvaro Arbeloa. It was at the other end, though, where the action was concentrated at the start of the second half. Dani Carvajal, given a more conservative role with Bale in front of him, fizzed a shot across goal on one of his rare forays forwards, while Benzema appealed for a penalty as he went down trying to reach a Jese cross.
With 64 minutes on the clock, Madrid reestablished an element of comfort in the score-line. Di Maria increased the pace in Madrid’s attack by driving forward and exchanging passes quickly with Benzema before slipping Jese through on goal. As against Atletico in midweek, Jese produced the deftest of finishes by simply flicking it to the side of a statuesque goalkeeper.
Again Villarreal produced something special to keep the match alive. This time it was Dos Santos who stepped up and curled a stunning free-kick just inside the post with his left foot. Yet, despite their best efforts, Madrid just had too much and they got a decisive fourth with a devastating counter attack.
Sergio Ramos started the break and found Benzema, who laid it down the right for Jese and clambered over a despairing challenge of a Villarreal player in order to get to the edge of the box and meet the youngster’s return pass into his path with a clinical finish into the bottom corner. On the balance of play, it was no less than they deserved.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.