Gareth Bale scored twice to save Real Madrid from a damaging defeat away at Villarreal on Sunday before capping a dramatic 2-2 La Liga draw by being sent off in injury-time.
Zinedine Zidane said in July it would be “best for everyone” if Bale left this summer but it was the Welshman’s double that earned Madrid a point from a thrilling contest at la Ceramica.
Villarreal took the lead through Gerard Moreno in the 12th minute and then Moi Gomez 16 minutes from the end but each time Bale pegged them back, first on the stroke of halftime and then four minutes from the end.
Two yellow cards in as many minutes then saw Bale dramatically sent off in the 94th minute but by then his match-saving contribution was complete.
It was six years to the day that Real Madrid paid 100 million euros (now $110m) to sign Bale, who now has 104 goals for the club, as many as the Brazilian Ronaldo.
But his heroics could not save Madrid from another slip, which means they head into the international break five points behind early front-runners Atletico Madrid, who had earlier beaten Eibar 3-2.
After drawing at home to Real Valladolid last time out, this was not the result Zidane would have wanted, particularly given he threw two new signings into his starting line-up.
Luka Jovic and Ferland Mendy both started, with Bale on the left of midfield in a 4-4-2, a sign of Zidane’s renewed faith in the 30-year-old’s defensive capabilities.
Zidane has now won only six of the 14 matches since he returned as coach in March and it remains to be seen if the club make any late additions on the final day of the transfer window on Monday.
Sergio Ramos was at fault for the first goal, robbed on the halfway line by Moreno, who drove forward and slipped in Karl Toko Ekambi. Ekambi’s shot was parried by Thibaut Courtois but only back into the path of Moreno, who picked his spot.
Madrid dominated the rest of the half as Casemiro headed wide, Lucas Vazquez lashed into the side-netting and Karim Benzema’s long-range effort hit the post.
They did score in the 46th minute with a brilliant goal, Jovic flicking Casemiro’s pass into Dani Carvajal, who crossed first time for Bale to tap in.
Madrid pushed for a second after the restart as Bale and Toni Kroos went close and Benzema had the ball in the net but was correctly called offside.
Instead, Villarreal landed a sucker-punch on the break as Mario Gaspar’s cross was cleared only to Santi Cazorla. His shot was saved by Courtois but Javi Ontiveros fired in again and Moi Gomez was perfectly placed.
Villarreal tried to hang on but tension set in and Bale equalised with four minutes left, cutting inside from the right and dragging a shot back inside the near post.
He might have fancied a hat-trick in injury time but instead picked up two yellow cards, the second for a late challenge on Ontiveros.