Gareth Bale compensated for the absence of the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo with a goal and an assist as Real Madrid went top of La Liga with a 4-2 win over Villarreal, whilst Atletico Madrid lost 2-0 at Almeria on Saturday.
The Welshman took advantage of an error from Chechu Dorado to chip home the opener before setting up Karim Benzema to put Madrid on the road to victory.
A wonder strike from Villarreal right-back Mario Gaspar gave Villarreal hope before half-time, but the in-form Jese Rodriguez made it 3-1 just after the hour mark with a lovely deft finish.
Giovani Dos Santos’ free-kick halved the deficit once more before Benzema’s second of the game sealed the points 15 minutes from time.
Los Blancos are now ahead of Atletico on goal difference after they lost for just the second time in the league this season as two late goals from Verza handed relegation threatened Almeria an unlikely win.
Atletico were dealt an early blow as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois missed out due to injury and the Belgian’s absence was to prove vital as his deputy Daniel Aranzubia endured a nightmare evening.
After a keenly contested first-half short on clear-cut chances, Atletico had started the second period strong as Diego Ribas flashed a shot just wide.
However, disaster struck for Diego Simeone’s men 10 minutes from time when Aranzubia flapped at Verza’s overhit cross and the ball flew into the far corner.
Things got even worse for the former Deportivo la Coruna keeper six minutes later when he was harshly adjudged to have brought down Jonathan Zongo inside the area and was shown a red card.
Having made all three substitutions, midfielder Gabi had to go in goal and Verza converted from the spot with ease.
Bale, Benzema, Ramos
It was a far happier evening for Real at the Santiago Bernabeu and boss Carlo Ancelotti hailed Bale’s contribution in Ronaldo’s absence.
“The absence of Cristiano gives more motivation to everyone. He is an indispensible player so everyone else has to work harder,” said the Italian.
“Bale played well, like the whole team did. It wasn’t an easy game, after the effort we made against Atletico on Wednesday it wasn’t easy to prepare for this match.
“He scored a good goal, made the second goal and general level of his overall performance was good.”
Bale had missed Real’s previous three games due to a calf injury, but he announced his return in style just seven minutes in as he robbed Dorado before dinking the ball over Sergio Asenjo for his 11th goal of the season.
The former Tottenham Hotspur man turned provider 14 minutes later with a right-footed cross that Benzema stabbed home at the near post.
And he then tried his luck from distance moments later, but his sweetly struck shot was too close to Asenjo.
Villarreal were back in the game three minutes before half-time in spectacular style as right-back Mario surged forward to unleash an unstoppable drive high into Diego Lopez’s top right-hand corner.
Angel di Maria nearly restored Madrid’s two-goal cushion just before the break with a dipping effort Asenjo was forced to turn over, whilst Dani Carvajal also came close when he shot just past the post 10 minutes after the restart from another Bale pass.
Jese did finally get the third goal for the hosts when he nudged the ball past Asenjo with the outside of his right foot for his fourth goal in as many games from Di Maria’s through ball.
Another stunning strike cut the deficit for Villarreal six minutes later when Dos Santos curled home a free-kick from 25 yards.
However, Real definitively sewed the game up when a flowing counter-attack involved Sergio Ramos, Jese and Benzema ended with the Frenchman side-footing home his 15th goal of the season.