Real Madrid forwards Gareth Bale and Jese Rodriguez each scored and set up goals for Karim Benzema in a 4-2 win over Villarreal on Saturday, provisionally pulling the powerhouse to the top of the Spanish standings.
Having spent considerable energy on attempting to repeal the three-match ban handed to the FIFA Ballon d'Or winner, Madrid were turned down and had to field a side to face Villarreal without their talisman.
Not to worry, they had Benzema, and Bale, and Jese. The front three all scored as Madrid kept the pressure on as they, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona duke it out for end-of-season silverware.
Bale was back on duty, having been sidelined with a calf injury he suffered against Granada in January. He had been expected back for the Copa del Rey tussle with Atletico in midweek, but was withdrawn from the squad late on.
His impact was instant, with the Welshman opening the scoring after six minutes. Defender Chechu Dorado dawdled on the ball on the left side of the pitch and Bale stole in to take it off his toes, run in on Sergio Asenjo and skilfully lift the ball over the goalkeeper.
Bale was fleetingly influential thereafter, being at his most productive in the early stages. It was 2-0 when Bale broke down the right and crossed right-footed to find Benzema at the near post, helped by a small deflection.
The Frenchman prodded the ball in from close range and Real looked to be cruising. They were jolted when Mario produced a fine strike to cut into their lead after 42 minutes, when the right-back went on a marauding run forward and cracked a powerful 18-yard shot across Diego Lopez and into the top left corner.
Angel di Maria forced Asenjo to tip over a powerful 30-yard blast as half-time approached. Madrid wanted a penalty early in the second half when Dorado and Benzema tangled but nothing was awarded. The home side's two-goal lead was restored by Jese after 63 minutes when he finished off a slick move.
Benzema laid off to Di Maria in midfield and the Argentinian's immediate through-pass picked out Jese's run, with the first-team newcomer providing an assured finish, a nonchalant flick of his right boot to roll the ball into the right corner beyond Asenjo.
Villarreal's Giovani Dos Santos produced a goal to rival Mario's five minutes later as the visitors again narrowed the gap, with his left-footed curling free-kick from 22 yards finding the left corner.
It was a high-finesse finish, as was Benzema's second. Inching in from the left, Jese laid the ball across for Benzema, 18 yards out, and the former Lyon man skilfully drilled a low first-time shot into the left corner to make victory certain for Carlo Ancelotti's men.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.