Real's court steps up for absence of king Ronaldo

Posted by Rob Train

Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty ImagesKarim Benzema had a strong performance against Villarreal, scoring two goals.

The issue of what having friends in high places can do for you has been in the spotlight in Spain this weekend, but there is no room for favours in this Real Madrid side.

In the absence of the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, there was little doubt that Gareth Bale's cotton wool would be unwrapped as Carlo Anclolotti sought to pick up three points against a Villarreal side. El Submarino Amarillo (The Yellow Submarine) have already exceeded reasonable expectation this season under Marcelino Garcia Toral. Relegated in 2011-12 after 12 straight seasons in Primera, then straight back up again the following year; the club's epithet has never been so compelling with the side in fifth place.

But Real's rising star Jese Rodriguez has been doing a fine job of grabbing the headlines in Bale's absence. So good in fact, that Bale's return after a few inactive weeks was fully under the magnifying glass at the Bernabeu on Saturday with the youngster deployed to fill some considerable branded boots on the left.

Garcia's side scored a memorable point earlier in the season in a 2-2 draw at El Madrigal, a game that also marked Bale's arrival as a Real player, and set the tone for his debut season in the capital; The Welshman scored on his debut and then limped out of Real's next league match against Getafe during the warm-up. Ronaldo was available for that one and proved decisive, quell surprise.

On Saturday Bale's turn to pick up the baton arrived and the number 11 wasted little time in giving the home fans something to cheer, although France striker Karim Benzema had the broadest smile of the night as his brace brought him level with his hero, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima.

But it was primarily up to Bale to divert the submarine on to the rocks, and he did so in a move that would have had Ancelotti's eyebrow greeting his hair in appreciation. Pressing high up the field, Bale dispossessed Chechu Dorado and drove toward goal, lifting a delicious lob over the advancing Sergio Asenjo. Madrid up 1-0, and a month of frustration expunged with a flick of the boot. He later provided the assist for Benzema's first of the night, shimmying on the edge of the box and delivering a pinpoint cross.

So far this season Bale has played roughly half the pitch time Real has put in, hampered by a series of niggling injuries. But entrusted with the driver's seat on Saturday, he earned the confidence of his teammates, who directed every forward thrust down Real's right flank in the first half. Dani Carvajal was again excellent -- if a little precipitate in having a pop on 55 minutes when Benzema was available for a tap-in -- but Real's ability to overcome adversity was fully displayed on the left, where Ancelotti lost his two-first choice left backs inside 45 minutes; Marcelo limped off early on to be replaced by Fabio Coentrao, who also failed to emerge after the break.

That enforced circumstance led to a change of tack for the home side.

Mario Gaspar had given the visitors a glimmer of hope before half-time when he surged between Sergio Ramos and Coentrao to hammer an unstoppable shot past Diego Lopez and the Portuguese's replacement, Alvaro Arbeloa, decided to plough a different furrow.

Jese had been reduced to a spectator in the first half but the Spain youth international's thinking was clear: with Villarreal preoccupied on the right, the Canarian canterano was brought into the game more and pay dirt was swift in arriving. Jese scored a beauty, guiding an Angel di Maria through ball past the helpless Asenjo with the poise of a seasoned finisher. The 20-year-old then turned provider, laying off for Benzema to fire home from 18 yards. Little wonder that Vicente del Bosque said this week that Jese may have a chance at Brazil at this rate.

It was a decisive intervention either side of 3-2. Villarreal had played themselves back into contention with the sort of attitude that epitomizes Garcia's side and in Giovanni dos Santos they have a player as capable of the sublime as any; an arrowing free-kick left Lopez clutching air for the second time in the match, leading to a couple of wild efforts from Jese and Bale as the home side sought to put the game beyond the reach of the Champions League aspirants.

That the not-so-long-ago derided Benzema did so, from the boot of the only player on the field that cost Real not a single euro, was a fitting end to a week in which the travails of the king of Spain's youngest daughter in court have just managed -- and only just -- to knock Ronaldo's red card and suspension off top billing. A timely reminder that even the biggest of stars require a decent supporting cast.

This was a true team effort from Real, with Luka Modric, Di Maria, Ramos et al doing their bit. It was also the potential banana skin among the three games that the Portugal captain will be watching from the comfort of the VIP lounge. "The absence of Ronaldo just makes everyone more motivated," Ancelotti noted after the match.

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