Gareth Bale looks set to face Liverpool in next week’s Champions League final after starting, scoring and starring in Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw with Villarreal in their last game before they travel to Ukraine.
He looked nowhere near the Kiev starting XI two weeks ago but a goal against Barcelona at the Nou Camp and two in a 6-0 win over Celta Vigo have given him back all the old confidence.
He featured from the start in Real Madrid’s final league game of the season as Zinedine Zidane appeared to test drive a possible Champions League final line-up with Bale in a front three alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, who was back from his ankle injury, and Isco.
Both Bale and Ronaldo scored as Real Madrid went up through the gears in the first half to take a two-goal lead. They relaxed in the second period and the manager’s son Luca Zidane, making his debut in goal, was beaten twice.
Casemiro played the ball to Bale on the edge of the area on 11 minutes for the opener. With his back to goal he sold Villarreal’s central defenders a dummy letting the ball run beyond them before turning and lashing it right footed past Andres Fernandez.
The entire team ran to him to celebrate and it felt like the goal that booked his place in the starting line-up.
When Madrid got their second it was a reminder to Liverpool that Marcelo cannot be allowed to wander forward completely unattended.
He found space on the half hour and nonchalantly crossed with the outside of his left foot to Ronaldo who headed past Fernandez. It was like an ode to Laurie Cunningham who used to take Madrid corners in much the same way.
This was turning into a practice match with Villarreal already safe in the Europa League places and neither willing nor able to change things to cope with Madrid’s mobile front three of Ronaldo, Isco and Bale.
Ronaldo looked to be showing no signs of the ankle sprain that had kept him out of Madrid’s last two games. He patiently obliged a pitch-invading fan who ran on the pitch at the start of the game in his Villarreal shirt to take a selfie with him. The supporter got the picture but didn’t get to see the game as he was marched out by stewards.
Zidane had picked 20-year-old son Luca for his debut. Johan Cruyff did the same for Jordi at Barcelona in 1994. The young keeper barely touched the ball in the first half although he brilliant tipped over Nicola Sansone’s free-kick at the start of the second period.
When the hour was up, Ronaldo’s comeback was complete and he was replaced by Benzema. He will be with happy 60 minutes and a goal after two weeks on the sidelines. Luca Modric also went off, replaced by Lucas Vazquez.
Livewire Bale was still Real Madird’s best player and he gifted Benzema a chance almost immediately. Again receiving the ball with his back to goal he flicked it to Toni Kroos and then charged into space. Kross gave the ball back to him and his cross was perfect for Benzema at the back post but his shot was blocked.
With 20 minutes left Roger Martinez cut in from the left to shoot right-footed past Luca and Villarreal were back in it.
As Madrid did their best to hang on to the three points and Villarreal tried to sign off the season with at least a draw the tackles began to fly in. There was a flurry of booking including one for Casemiro who clattered Mario Gaspar on the touchline bundling him into the linesman who did well to keep his feet.
Villarreal got the goal they were looking for five minutes from time. The Real Madrid defence had stepped forward but Marcelo had not and Samu Castillejo raced away rounding Luca and scoring from a tight angle.
The result leaves Real Madrid potentially 17 points behind Champions Barcelona if they win on Sunday. That will not bother them if they lift the European Cup next Saturday.
Bale, with his fifth goal in four La Liga games, now looks likely to be there from the start to help them do it.