Real Madrid returned from the international break with a 1-1 draw against Villarreal on Saturday evening at the Estadio de la Ceramica.
Mariano Diaz got Los Blancos off to a roaring start with a goal inside the first two minutes, but a strong response from the hosts in the second half saw Gerard Moreno earn an equaliser via the penalty spot in what was an entertaining, back-and-forth 90 minutes of football.
The slew of injuries and COVID-related absences forced Zinedine Zidane into a slew of changes to his starting XI. Nacho Fernandez was called into duty for Sergio Ramos at centre-back, Martin Odegaard slotted into midfield and up top Mariano got his first start in over a year in place of Karim Benzema and was flanked by Eden Hazard and Lucas Vazquez.
Mariano repaid the faith shown in him by notching the first goal just minutes in, as the striker speared a header into net off a cross from Dani Carvajal for a 0-1 lead. Villarreal howled for an offside on Lucas Vazquez, but since he was not part of the build-up, the goal was given.
There was a great tempo being played, with crisp passing from both sides, and one sequence for Villarreal almost ended with an equaliser when Dani Parejo headed just over the crossbar off a pass from Gerard.
The Yellow Submarine's quest for a leveller carried into the second half and an opportunity was presented to Gerard thanks to an excellent pass from Manu Trigueros, but the Spain international fired wide of the far post.
Zidane looked to his bench shortly after the hour mark and made a double switch to start, with Isco on for Odegaard and Vinicius Junior replacing Hazard.
But Villarreal were still looking like the side most likely to score and a fantastic pull-back pass from Pervis Estupinan for Parejo saw the former Valencia man spray a shot wide.
Villarreal's persistence would finally reap rewards when Samu Chukwueze won a penalty after being clipped by Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in the area. Gerard then stepped up and slotted home the spot kick past the reaching fingertips of the Belgian to bring Villarreal level 1-1.
Gerard could have added another one just minutes later but a swooping late intervention from Raphael Varane kept things even.
Zidane looked to counter with a late winner, so Marco Asensio was summoned from the bench for Mariano, but it was Villarreal who had the last chance of the match when Gerard played in Take Kubo, but the young Japanese starlet failed to convert against his parent club resulting in a share of the spoils.
1.- Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario (Pena, min. 88), Albiol, Pau Torres, Pedraza (Pino, min. 61); Parejo, Iborra, Trigueros (Estupinan, min. 61); Gerard Moreno, Moi Gomez (Kubo, min. 89), Bacca (Chukwueze, min. 61).
1.- Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Nacho, Mendy; Modric, Kroos, Odegaard (Isco, min. 65); Lucas, Hazard (Vinicius, min. 65), Mariano (Asensio, min. 85).
Goals: 0-1, min. 2: Mariano; 1-1, min. 76: Gerard Moreno (p).
Referee: Hernandez Hernandez (Canarias).
Yellow cards: Nacho (Min. 68) for Real Madrid, Pino (Min. 91) for Villarreal, Kroos (Min. 93) for Real Madrid.
Red cards: None.
Stadium: La Ceramica.
Source: Marca / Arch Bell