Roberto Soldado’s early strike against his former side gave Villarreal a 1-0 victory over Real Madrid, who fell to a third La Liga defeat on Sunday.
Sergio Ramos and Gareth Bale were both absent from Tuesday’s 8-0 mauling of Malmo in the Champions League, but the defender was fit enough to replace Nacho after he recovered from a shoulder complaint, while the Welshman returned alongside Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Los Blancos also welcomed back Keylor Navas in goal, Marcelo at left-back and Luka Modric in the middle of the park for a must-win match as victory would have seen them move to within two points of joint-leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
The Yellow Submarine flew out of the traps, winning a corner inside the first minute, and broke the deadlock shortly after, when Bruno Soriano robbed Modric just outside the Madrid box and quickly released Cedric Bakambu, who unselfishly teed up Soldado for a simple finish.
Madrid failed to create any clear-cut chances prior to the interval as Bakambu, with the League’s best conversion rate, ought to have done better with the second chance which fell his side’s way, although he opted to turn and send a shot over the bar, when Soldado was unmarked to his left.
Rafa Benitez’s men were much improved after the restart as they upped the intensity, but Karim Benzema could only flash his volley in the box wide of the far post, before sending a low cross over the bar from close range.
Having created more in the first five minutes of the second half than all of the first, Madrid were then denied by Victor Ruiz’s headed clearance off the line and Alphonse Areola’s save down low to deny Bale after he powered through from the right.
With Benzema spurning another chance and neither James Rodriguez able to exploit Areola, it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh from his four goals against Malmo, but he fired a shot at the goalkeeper’s near post and compounded his and Los Blancos’ misery by blasting a volley over in the area.
The result leaves Madrid five points adrift of the summit and Villarreal only a point behind fourth-placed Celta Vigo after their first win against the capital giants since May 2009.
Villarreal 1-0 Real Madrid
Villarreal: Areola; Bailly (Rukavina 84), Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Jonathan, Trigueros (Pina 90), Bruno, Suarez; Soldado (Leiva 83), Bakambu
Real Madrid: Navas; Danilo, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo (Jese 89); Casemiro (Kovacic 79), Modric (Isco 78); James, Bale, Ronaldo; Benzema
Referee: Undiano Mallenco