By Michael Hincks
Gareth Bale lays down gauntlet to Vinicius Jr after Real Madrid emerge as Barcelona's closest contenders
Bale scores 100th Real goal in 3-1 derby win at Atletico
Last Updated: 09/02/19 9:13pm
As Real Madrid emerged as Barcelona's nearest league challengers with victory at Atletico Madrid, Gareth Bale laid down the gauntlet to Vinicius Junior in the fight to start in Santiago Solari's side, writes Michael Hincks from the Wanda Metropolitano.
Real could not have asked for a sterner test after their strong start to 2019, facing a trip to city rivals Atletico just three days after a Clasico encounter at Barcelona.
Their revival could have been truly halted, but instead they have passed with flying colours. A draw at the Nou Camp was followed up with a 3-1 victory at the Wanda Metropolitano, and it means Real are now seven games unbeaten and five points behind leaders Barca.
It would be a tall order to peg Barca back, particularly as Ernesto Valverde's side have a game in hand, but with a league Clasico to come in March at the Bernabeu, Real certainly look capable of reigniting the title race.
A first victory at the Wanda outlined Real's resurgence of late, and in becoming the first side to score three league goals at Atletico's new stadium and inflict a first home defeat of the season on their neighbours, they also significantly exposed Diego Simeone's usually-watertight defence ahead of their Champions League last 16 encounter against Juventus in 11 days' time.
All the while, Bale proved he was also up for the fight when coming off the bench to score his 100th goal for the club in his 217th appearance.
Bale has battled multiple injuries and the Bernabeu boo-boys during his time in Madrid, and is currently facing a new challenge due to the emergence of 18-year-old Vinicius, who is displaying a confidence beyond his age as he begins to make telling contributions under Solari.
The Brazilian started his sixth league match in a row at Atletico, and though his trickery earned Real the penalty that helped them to a 2-1 halftime lead, he was brought off surprisingly early after the break as Solari turned to Bale.
Bale duly made the most of his 33 minutes on the pitch when latching onto Luka Modric's fine pass to slide in Real's third and put the game beyond the hosts. He could have had a second, too, only to see a header sail a whisker wide.
His goalscoring contribution ultimately lays down a gauntlet to Vinicius, who will know he has to add goals to his impressive repertoire if he is to continue fending off Bale on the left wing.
Vinicius scored his first league goal in their previous league outing at Alaves, proving he is more than up to the task, but Bale's strike will be a reminder that he will be expected to contribute on a consistent basis.
For Solari, it is a welcome headache as Real turn their attentions to the Champions League last-16 tie at Ajax, and if his players can continue to share the burden up front, then there is nothing off limits in the final four months of the season.
Pegging Barcelona back is not out of the question, nor is a fourth straight European trophy. After a difficult start to the campaign, it is suddenly looking rather rosy for Real.