Gareth Bale and Luka Modric dropped from squad as Real Madrid 'play better' to beat Villarreal
Manager Zidane demanded a reaction after the shock defeat to Ray Vallecano and a much-changed side produced the result he wanted
Gareth Bale's Real Madrid future has been plunged into further doubt after the Welsh forward was dropped from the squad altogether for the 3-2 win over Villarreal on Sunday.
An angry Zinedine Zidane had questioned his players' attitudes after a 1-0 defeat to Rayo Vallecano in the previous game, and the Madrid manager reacted by making a host of changes to his side.
Most notably was the absence of Ballon d'Or-winning midfielder Luka Modric and Bale, who fell out of favour with Zidane during the Frenchman's first spell in charge.
The much-changed side won thanks to two goals from Mariano Diaz - in at No 9 to replace Karim Benzema - either side of Jesus Vallejo's finish. Gerard Moreno had pulled level for Villarreal before Jaume Costa scored deep in injury-time to reduce the deficit.
Zidane warned Madrid's expectant fans on Saturday that much of his current squad will still be at the club next season, but this felt like another exercise in experimentation, inside a Bernabeu that looked only a little over half full.
"I am the coach," Zidane said. "I pick the squad and that's it."
Youngsters like Vallejo, Brahim Diaz and Federico Valverde were given chances to impress, along with Mariano, who has barely been used since joining from Lyon last summer.
"We played better than against Rayo," Zidane said. "We needed that and the players needed it. We played well, no more, we're not throwing flowers into the air. We did the job and we won."
The result leaves third-placed Madrid six points behind Atletico Madrid in La Liga with two games left. Villarreal stay 15th, three points above 18th-placed Girona in the battle to avoid relegation.
Madrid would need to win both of their remaining matches and Atletico lose both of theirs to prevent Diego Simeone's side finishing as the top team in the capital for the second year running.
But more of a concern for Zidane will be the 15-point gap behind Barcelona, which would likely be even bigger had the already-crowned champions not rested players for the Uefa Champions League in recent weeks.
Mariano's display begs the question whether he could have been more useful during a campaign where his team have struggled for goals.
In that regard, the sight of Vinicius Junior coming off the bench here and making his first appearance in two months after recovering from injury will also have been a welcome boost.
Mariano had scored inside two minutes, prodding in after Santi Cazorla had been robbed in midfield by the energetic Brahim.
The advantage lasted only nine minutes as this time Casemiro was caught napping in his own half, allowing Gerard Moreno the chance to fire past Thibaut Courtois at the near post.
Madrid settled as Dani Carvajal hit the post from distance before Vallejo put them back in front shortly before half-time. Marcelo weaved in from the left and his blocked shot fell at Vallejo's feet, the 22-year-old finishing from four yards.
Madrid made it three early in the second half, Mariano tapping in Carvajal's cross before Vinicius came on to a warm reception with 16 minutes left.
An otherwise comfortable afternoon ended frantically as Costa, on off the bench planted the ball past Courtois, and there was still time for one more Villarreal attack.
Xavi Quintilla might even have snatched an unlikely draw but, free at the back post, he skewed his finish wide. Madrid held on.
Earlier, Getafe took another step closer to sealing fourth place and Champions League qualification as they beat Girona 2-0.
Goals from Jorge Molina and Rodriguez Diaz leave Getafe three points ahead of Sevilla with two games left.
Defeat for Girona means they drop into the bottom three, one point beneath Real Valladolid, who edged to a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao.
Huesca's stay in the top flight lasted just one season as a 6-2 rout at home to Valencia meant they were relegated as were Rayo Vallecano whose fate was sealed by Vallodolid's win.
Updated: May 6, 2019 12:02 PM