Real Madrid coach Santi Solari lamented another injury for Gareth Bale as the main reason his team began 2019 by dropping two more important La Liga points in Thursday's 2-2 draw at Villarreal.
Villarreal went ahead early through Santi Cazorla's curler from the edge of the penalty area, but Madrid had soon taken control through headed goals by Karim Benzema and Raphael Varane.
After Bale left at half-time with another calf muscle problem, Madrid then sat back to protect their lead and were punished late on when ex-Arsenal man Cazorla popped up at the back post to head an equaliser.
With the Welsh galactico having now been substituted 15 times in La Liga this season, more than any other player, his coach told the post-match news conference that Madrid really missed his counter-attacking quality in the second half.
"We had the victory in our hand and wanted to kill the game," Solari said. "But they came back and got the equaliser. They pressed a lot, were playing at home and needed the points. Gareth leaving like that cost us as he had a problem and we missed that counter-attacking edge, and Gareth is a specialist at just that. He got a bang in a challenge with the defender, and felt something and was not able to continue."
Asked about his team appearing to lose their way in the game in the second half, Solari said that he felt Real had been in control but unable to take advantage of the space Villarreal left behind as they pushed up for an equaliser.
"I don't think it was about lacking control, but more a lack of countering and doing them damage in the second half," he said. "We had two clear chances for a third goal with Lucas Vazquez and Marcelo. But it's true we were lacking clarity in our breaks, and missed players like Gareth who are specialists at that. He would have allowed us to exploit the spaces Villarreal left when they pressed up."
The Argentine coach was asked to explain his thinking behind replacing both Luka Modric and Toni Kroos with youngsters Federico Valverde and Vinicius Junior with the game in the balance.
"Luka was recovering from the flu and gave us everything he had," Solari said. "I was happy to get that 60, 65 minutes from him, it was pre-planned. And Valverde gave us energy and also control when he came on. With Kroos, there were only a six or seven minutes left and we wanted to try and win the game late on with Vinicius. We are happy with what the younger players are giving us."
Thirty points from the first 17 games is Madrid's worst total at this stage since the 2005-06 season, with leaders Barcelona now seven points ahead of them atop the table.
"We have to keep fighting always, and we will," Solari said, when asked about his team's title hopes. "We came here to win, had the game in our hand, and are leaving with a point. We now must focus on another game in three days' time."