Zidane's gambles pay off as Real reclaim top spot

MADRID • Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane threw caution to the wind as his side showed the capacity to handle adversity with a stirring late comeback to beat Villarreal 3-2 and stay top of Spanish football's La Liga on Sunday.

After Cedric Bakambu doubled Villarreal's lead in the second half, Zidane hauled off holding midfielder Casemiro for playmaker Isco. Real eventually emerged with all three points thanks to another substitute Alvaro Morata's late header.

The pressure was on Real after arch-rivals Barcelona left it late to win 2-1 at Atletico Madrid and temporarily go top, while Sevilla had fought back to beat local rivals Real Betis 2-1 on Saturday and stay in a compelling three-way tilt for the Spanish title.

"We had to change something when the score was 2-0, that's what we did. It worked well because we weren't playing well, it was an attacking change which allowed us to play in our opponents' half," Zidane said.

"We knew they'd cause us problems as they're so good at home and after they scored twice we had to be patient and play our game. Given what happened (earlier) today it was vital to get the three points and leave here as leaders."

Real lead the league with 55 points, ahead of Barca on 54 and Sevilla with 52, and a game in hand on their title rivals.

Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale heading home his side's first goal in sparking their comeback win over Villarreal after going two down. Since his return to the team from injury, the Welshman has scored two goals in three games. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, with a penalty, cancelled out goals by Bakambu and Manu Trigueros, though Villarreal were left stunned at the penalty decision as the ball bounced off the ground and struck captain Bruno Soriano on the arm.

"You can clearly see I couldn't have done anything, the ball bounced up towards my arm and I can't cut my arm off. It's a bounce and it's clear to me it wasn't a penalty," Bruno said.

Villarreal coach Fran Escriba and unused substitute Roberto Soldado were dismissed from the dugout for protesting.

"I respect referees a lot but every year we are told that a rebound does not warrant a penalty for handball and he interpreted it another way," Escriba said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Zidane's gambles pay off as Real reclaim top spot'. Print Edition | Subscribe