MADRID - Real Madrid's Gareth Bale answered his critics in emphatic style when he ended a nine-game goal drought with a double for the European champions in a 2-0 La Liga victory against Levante at the Bernabeu on Sunday.
The world record signing, whistled by his own team's fans during Real's recent poor run, struck twice in the first half and came close to completing his hat-trick midway through the second period to leave Real a point behind leaders Barcelona.
They failed to add to their tally against the struggling Valencia-based side, however, and question marks remain over their form following a 4-3 reverse at home to Schalke 04 in their Champions League last 16, second leg in midweek.
Real, who still reached the quareter-finals on aggregate, head to Barca for next weekend's 'Clasico' at the Nou Camp in second place behind their arch rivals, who won 2-0 at Eibar on Saturday and lead on 65 points with 11 games left.
Valencia climbed to third on 57 points thanks to Friday's 2-0 win at home to Deportivo La Coruna, above champions Atletico Madrid, who were held 0-0 at Espanyol on Saturday and have 56.
Real coach Carlo Ancelotti made several changes to the team that lost to Schalke but squeaked into the last eight of Europe's elite club competition 5-4 over the two legs.
The Italian left Germany midfielder Toni Kroos on the bench and replaced keeper and captain Iker Casillas with Keylor Navas, while centre back Sergio Ramos returned from injury.
Clearly anxious to make amends for Tuesday's poor showing against the Germans, Real started strongly and Cristiano Ronaldo poked a close-range shot against a post in the fifth minute.
Bale seemed especially fired up and broke the deadlock in the 18th minute when he volleyed in after an acrobatic Ronaldo effort had been cleared off the line.
The Welshman placed his hands over his ears, perhaps a reference to his treatment from the home fans, and ran to the corner before angrily karate-kicking the flag.
Bale got a somewhat fortuitous second goal five minutes before halftime when he stuck out a leg and deflected Ronaldo's low shot into the corner.
Karim Benzema sent a spectacular volley against the corner of the goal frame in the 64th and Bale was brilliantly denied by Levante keeper Diego Marino in a one-on-one six minutes later.
Ronaldo, who had a frustrating night, stung Marino's hands with a fierce drive and volleyed wastefully over late on but Real were unable to breach Levante's defences again.
BACCA DOUBLE Sevilla strengthened their grip on fifth spot and closed within four points of Atletico when Carlos Bacca struck twice in a 3-0 win at home to Elche.
Colombia striker Bacca put the Europa League champions ahead from the penalty spot in the 18th minute at the Sanchez Pizjuan and made it 2-0 in the 31st when he nodded in a Coke cross.
Elche made a determined effort to get back into the game in the second half before substitute Kevin Gameiro completed a comfortable victory for the Andalusians nine minutes from time.
Gameiro ran on to an Ever Banega pass and finished clinically past goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton.
Sevilla are three points ahead of sixth-placed Villarreal, the team they host in a Europa League last 16 return match on Thursday holding a 3-1 lead from last week's first leg.
They also play at Villarreal, who were held to a 0-0 stalemate at Almeria earlier on Sunday, in La Liga in a week's time.
Seventh-placed Malaga boosted their chances of a Europa League berth next season as they moved within five points of Villarreal with a 2-0 win at home to Cordoba.
Cordoba are four points adrift at the bottom and appear doomed for relegation.