By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) – Atletico Madrid surrendered top spot in La Liga to Barcelona when they were held 0-0 at home by 10-man Sevilla on Sunday before Real Madrid lost ground after an entertaining 1-1 stalemate at Real Betis.
Alvaro Cejudo conjured a spectacular volley Real’s new coach Zinedine Zidane would have been proud of to put Betis ahead in the seventh minute and the Seville-based side held the 10-times European champions at bay until Karim Benzema levelled 19 minutes from time.
Real, in Zidane’s first game away from home since he took over from the sacked Rafa Benitez and missing the injured Gareth Bale, laid siege to the home goal in a frantic finale but could not find a winner.
Valencia’s struggles continued with a tepid 1-1 draw at Deportivo La Coruna, leaving coach Gary Neville without a La Liga win in seven attempts since taking over last month.
Atletico and Barca each have 48 points with just over half the season played but the champions, who have a game in hand and host Atletico next weekend, are ahead on goal difference. Real are four points adrift of the leaders in third
There was little to choose between Atletico and Sevilla for the first hour at the Calderon, with the best chance falling to home forward Antoine Griezmann when he headed against a post in the 53rd minute.
Sevilla, who are seventh, were rocked back when midfielder Vitolo was sent off with around half an hour remaining and coach Unai Emery was dismissed from the bench for protesting the decision.
Atletico poured forward in search of a winner but the Europa League holders’ defence held firm, goalkeeper Sergio Rico pulling off a fine save to block a powerful Gabi strike eight minutes from time.
“That’s football, the ball didn’t want to go in and we have to carry on working,” Atletico midfielder Koke told Spanish television.
Betis fans were in typically fine voice at the Benito Villamarin stadium and Cejudo’s stunning strike from the edge of the area, which flew into the top corner past Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas, raised the volume even higher.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Pepe all fluffed good chances before James Rodriguez burst clear into the area and squared for Benzema to make it 1-1.
Betis keeper Antonio Adan, a former Real player, was on excellent form and produced superb stops to deny Rodriguez and Benzema.
Valencia needed a last-gasp Alvaro Negredo goal at Deportivo’s Riazor stadium in Galicia to rescue a point.
Lucas Perez put the home side ahead in the 27th minute when he rounded Valencia keeper Mathew Ryan and rolled the ball into the empty net.
Negredo shaved the top of the crossbar with a curling effort in the 80th minute before levelling in the third minute of added time with a well-taken header.
Valencia, who last won in La Liga at the start of November, are mired down in 11th, eight points adrift of the European qualification places.
“The fans want victories and I am desperate to give them to them,” Neville told a news conference.
“I am not happy about today’s result, a draw can never make a coach of Valencia happy,” added the former Manchester United and England defender. “What I am proud of is that we fought until the end.”
Surprise package Eibar surrendered an early lead and were beaten 5-2 at Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao.
Eibar have one of the cheapest squads in Spain’s top division yet the tiny club have outshone wealthier rivals, including Bilbao who they beat 2-0 in August.
Sunday’s defeat snapped a four-match winning streak and left them in sixth.
(Editing by Alan Baldwin, Pritha Sarkar and Brian Homewood)