MADRID (Reuters) – Atletico Madrid turned up the heat on champions Barcelona when they fought back to secure a 2-1 win at home to Athletic Bilbao in La Liga on Sunday as Real Madrid slipped off the pace with a 1-0 loss at Villarreal.
Atletico’s battling victory put them level at the top on 35 points with Barca, who surrendered a 2-0 advantage and were held 2-2 at home by Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday, their second consecutive draw after last weekend’s 1-1 stalemate at Valencia.
Barca are ahead on goal difference, while Real are five points adrift in third after Roberto Soldado scored against his former club to give Villarreal, who are a point off fourth spot with 27, the spoils at the Madrigal.
Real fielded their famous attacking trident of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema but could not make a host of chances count and the defeat heaps more pressure on under-fire coach Rafa Benitez.
Bilbao took a 27th-minute lead at a typically boisterous Calderon stadium when defender Aymeric Laporte netted at a corner before Atletico midfielder Saul Niguez levelled with a header from a corner at the other end on the stroke of halftime.
A closely-fought encounter appeared destined for a draw until the ball broke kindly for Antoine Griezmann in the 67th minute and the France forward curled a superb shot into the corner of the net from just outside the penalty area.
At Villarreal, midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos had already hit a post before Soldado, a graduate of Real’s youth academy, struck to put the home side ahead in the eighth minute.
Real laid siege to the Villarreal goal in the second half but despite a string of efforts they only managed one on target and slipped to a third league defeat of the season.
They were a shadow of the side that demolished Malmo 8-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday, with Ronaldo and Benzema particularly wayward.
“We were not switched on at the start,” Real centre back Pepe told Spanish television.
“We are still in the fight but it’s true that we have to start games differently and better,” added the Portugal international.
Former England defender Gary Neville is still without a win in two games since taking over as Valencia coach after his new club had a man sent off and needed an Eibar own goal to rescue a 1-1 draw at the modest Basque side.
Valencia, Eibar and Bilbao each have 21 points in eighth, ninth and 10th respectively.
Neville was a surprise appointment to replace Nuno Espirito Santo and his first game in charge was Wednesday’s 2-0 reverse at home to Olympique Lyonnais that ended Valencia’s hopes of advancing to the Champions League knockout round.
He presided over another disappointing performance from the ambitious Singapore-owned club at Eibar, though they are missing key players, including captain Dani Parejo and midfielder Sofiane Feghouli, through injury and suspension.
Eibar had the better chances in the first half and took a deserved lead moments before the break when Sergi Enrich finished from close range after good work down the right from Ander Capa.
Valencia’s hopes of getting back into the game were dealt a blow in the 63rd minute when defender Lucas Orban was dismissed for an innocuous-looking challenge on Dani Garcia in the penalty area.
Jaume Domenech saved Saul Berjon’s spot kick and Borja Baston blasted the rebound over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Valencia levelled five minutes from time when the ball ricocheted off home defender David Junca and squirted past keeper Asier Riesgo into the net.
Eibar defender Ivan Ramis was then shown a straight red card for felling Paco Alcacer when the Valencia forward was through on goal in the second minute of added time.
“What annoyed me most was that we gave the ball away a lot in the first half,” Neville told a news conference. “In the second half we showed more pride and could even have won the game.”
Malaga moved out of the relegation zone when Croatia forward Duje Cop struck three minutes from time for the Qatar-owned club to snatch a 2-1 comeback win at fellow strugglers Rayo Vallecano.
(Writing by Iain Rogers, editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)