Bale on target as Ronaldo-less Madrid beat Villarreal
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 level on points with Atletico Madrid at the top of the table, although Atletico can move clear of their local rivals once more when they face Almeria later on Saturday.
Real boss Carlo Ancelotti hailed Bale's contribution and believes Ronaldo's absence forced the rest of the side to take more responsibility.
"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.
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