Gareth Bale came off the bench to score a controversial winning penalty against Levante on Sunday but his refusal to celebrate suggested all may not be well again at Real Madrid.
Bale’s spot-kick earned Madrid a battling and, in truth, undeserved 2-1 victory at the City of Valencia Stadium where referee Ignacio Iglesias failed to reverse his decision, despite VAR exposing a theatrical dive from Casemiro.
The absence of any delight from a stony-faced Bale was telling, as he turned and brushed off team-mates’ attempts to congratulate him.
‘The players can celebrate goals how they want, as long as we win,’ coach Santiago Solari said.
This was Bale’s sixth game on the bench in the eight matches since he returned from injury and it remains to be seen if his cameo will be enough to win a start against Barcelona on Wednesday, in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey.
‘He looked thrilled in the dressing room because he scored,’ added Solari. ‘I loved how he came into the game, the anger he played with helped, and he gave us the victory, he gave us hard work.
‘When we had 10 men he performed a double-job up front. For me, he had a fantastic match.’
Bale replaced Karim Benzema in the 74th minute, after the Frenchman had scored his own penalty in the first half before Roger Marti pulled Levante level.
Levante had already twice hit the post by then and Madrid will be relieved to have escaped with the points that keep them nine behind Barca, and two back on Atletico, who had earlier beaten Villarreal.
Alvaro Morata scored his first Atleti goal at the Wanda Metropolitano, toasting his smart finish by poking fun at VAR, which had twice intervened to prevent him opening his account at his new club.
Real Madrid have been among the most vocal critics of the technology in La Liga this season but Levante were the ones hard done by this time.
Cheick Doucoure‘s swinging right foot was wild but there was no contact to merit the leap from Casemiro. Iglesias reviewed but retained his decision.
Barcelona, whom Real now face in two Clasicos in four days, the second in the league, also at the Santiago Bernabeu, will now benefit from an extra day’s rest and also a suspension for Nacho, who was sent off late on for a second yellow card.
Levante dominated for the majority of the first half but missed three golden chances. Roger was most guilty, poking onto the post from three yards out, and then nipping in behind but again hitting the woodwork, when Thibaut Courtois had left the corner open.
In between, Madrid took the lead with a penalty that took everyone by surprise, brought back to a Luka Modric cross blocked by the raised arm of Enis Bardhi. It was the correct call and Benzema made no mistake.
Levante had been the better side and found an equaliser just before the hour, Luis Morales squaring for Roger, who beat Nacho to the ball and expertly angled a finish into the far corner.
The game was now in the balance. The lively Vinicius Junior sped in behind but was denied by the hand of Aitor Fernandez. Bale came on for Benzema and was soon called into action as Doucoure swung and missed, prompting Casemiro to tumble. Bale slid the ball into the corner.
Nacho was sent off and so was Levante’s Ruben Rochina on the bench, punished for protesting. Levante deserved more but Madrid held on.
Atletico‘s victory was more comfortable as Barcelona‘s closest challengers kept up the chase with a 2-0 win over Villarreal.
Since joining Atletico on loan from Chelsea last month, Morata has twice had goals ruled out on review so when this one finally stood, he celebrated by imitating a referee putting a finger to his ear.
‘At last it came, and with a victory too, so I’m going home happy today,’ Morata said. ‘Until I saw all the officials in the stadium had given the goal, I didn’t want to celebrate too much.’
Saul Niguez added a late second for Atletico, who sustain momentum after their brilliant win over Juventus on Wednesday in the Champions League.
Another Messi hat-trick
Lionel Messi hit a sumptuous hat-trick, the 50th of his career, to inspire Barcelona to a 4-2 victory over Sevilla on Saturday and take them one step closer to winning La Liga.
Messi was supposed to be lacking fitness and Barça struggling for form but both delivered a resounding response at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
After scoring 11 goals in nine games, Messi‘s thigh strain had coincided with a dip by his own high standards, one goal in four prompting concerns he was being pushed too far.
But the Argentinian was back to his scintillating best, this his 44th treble for Barcelona, now the joint most for a Spanish club alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, rounded off by a trademark chip late on.
‘We cannot always be at our best,’ Messi said afterwards. ‘We came from a streak when, to be honest, we weren’t playing our best football. If the game flows it is easier to score goals.’
Luis Suarez needed a goal after a disappointing performance against Lyon in midweek and Messi arranged that too. It was his pass that Suarez converted for a fourth, after Jesus Navas and Gabriel Mercado had twice put Sevilla ahead in the first half.
Sevilla’s top-four hopes look increasingly uncertain but for Barcelona, this was one of the toughest tests left in their run-in, with perhaps the most difficult to come next weekend, against Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.
‘This is not the title almost won but it was important to win today,’ Messi said. ‘It gets harder towards the end and it is never easy here. Today we were back to being us.’
Spanish La Liga results up to Sunday 24 February 2019
Espanyol 1 Huesca 1
Getafe 2 Rayo Vallecano 1
Sevilla 2 Barcelona 4
Alaves 0 Celta Vigo 0
Athletic Bilbao 1 Eibar 0
Leganes 1 Valencia 1
Atletico Madrid 2 Villarreal 0
Real Valladolid 0 Real Betis 2
Levante 1 Real Madrid 2
Girona v Real Sociedad
La Liga Table – Sunday 24 February 2019
(Played, Won, Drawn, Lost, Goals For/Against, Points)
Barcelona 25 17 6 2 65 25 57
Atletico Madrid 25 14 8 3 36 17 50
Real Madrid 25 15 3 7 43 30 48
Getafe 25 10 9 6 32 22 37
Sevilla 25 10 7 8 40 32 37
Alaves 25 10 7 8 25 28 37
Real Betis 25 10 6 9 29 30 36
Real Sociedad 24 9 7 8 30 25 34
Valencia 25 6 15 4 25 21 33
Athletic Bilbao 25 7 12 6 25 28 33
Eibar 25 7 10 8 33 35 31
Leganes 25 7 9 9 26 31 30
Levante 25 8 6 11 37 45 30
Espanyol 25 8 6 11 28 38 30
Girona 24 6 9 9 25 34 27
Valladolid 25 6 8 11 19 31 26
Celta Vigo 25 6 7 12 36 43 25
Villarreal 25 4 11 10 26 33 23
Rayo Vallecano 25 6 5 14 28 43 23
SD Huesca 25 4 7 14 24 41 19