Soccer-Real expect Bale return to ease Ronaldo absence blow


By Tim Hanlon

BARCELONA, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Real Madrid will be without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo when they take on Villarreal on Saturday but will expect the return of their record-signing Gareth Bale to ease the blow.

Competition is fierce at the top of the La Liga table with Atletico Madrid now leading the way on 57 points while Real are three behind, and below Barcelona on goal difference, after Sunday's 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao where Ronaldo received a red card and subsequently a three-match ban.

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Real secured a 3-0 victory in the first leg of the King's Cup semi-final over Atletico at the Bernabeu on Wednesday but Bale did not play.

That was despite coach Carlo Ancelotti saying ahead of the game that the Welshman had recovered from a calf injury and was ready to play.

"He is fine but we decided to leave him out as a precaution," Ancelotti told a news conference after the match. "He has not suffered another injury. I decided to give him a rest.

"On Saturday if we don't have Cristiano then to have Bale fresh will be good for us."

Bale, 24, has had an injury-plagued first season at the Bernabeu following his 100 million euro transfer from Tottenham Hotspur and five separate injuries have limited his participation.

Atletico suffered their first defeat in all competitions since they lost to Espanyol in mid-October after a commanding performance from Real.

"It was our best game of the season," said Ancelotti. "Our football is more comfortable now and we are more solid. A lot has changed and the players are working well together."

It is a different story for Barcelona who surrendered the leadership after they went down 3-2 at home to Valencia last weekend. They now have won only one of their last four league games.

They responded with a 2-0 victory in the first leg of the cup at the Nou Camp against Real Sociedad but they looked far from their best.

Barca now have a tough away game against Sevilla on Sunday.

Defender Dani Alves also hit out at the fans as fewer than 39,000 were present in the 98,000 capacity stadium.

"Sometimes it is like we are playing away from home," Alves told reporters.

"People here are very pessimistic, those who have not come are not such big cules (fans) as they say. If they don't believe in the team then maybe it is best they don't come."

Atletico aim to bounce back against Almeria after their cup disappointment.

"We are a team used to winning so it is not normal that we lose and concede three goals. They were more efficient and were just victors. We will try and turn the game around at the Calderon," said fullback Juanfran Torres.

"The team is in good shape though and we will now be stronger for this starting against Almeria, where we will look to win at a difficult ground." (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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