Atletico pulls even with Barca at top of Liga, Real Madrid falls to Villarreal
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Real Madrid lost 1-0 at Villarreal to fall five points behind the Spanish league's two frontrunners on Sunday, after Atletico Madrid pulled level with leader Barcelona by fighting back to win 2-1 at Athletic Bilbao.
Roberto Soldado scored Villarreal's winner eight minutes into a first half it completely dominated, before the hosts held off Madrid's furious response after the break.
Cut adrift by the pacesetters, Madrid's defeat left it just two points above fourth-place Celta Vigo and three ahead of Villarreal in fifth.
The stumble will add even more pressure on already questioned coach Rafa Benitez after a difficult month that included a 4-0 loss to Barcelona and disqualification from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player.
While Benitez will face even more criticism back in the capital, the 15th round of matches went perfectly for Diego Simeone. His Atletico was the only one of the three top teams to win after Barcelona drew for a second consecutive round when held 2-2 by Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday.
But to do so, Atletico again had to show it has rediscovered the same knack for pulling out wins from its 2014 championship campaign.
Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte scored from a corner kick in the 26th minute, only for Saul Niguez to equalize from another corner just before halftime.
With Bilbao dictating the flow of play and Simeone calling for home fans to rally his side, Antoine Griezmann unleashed a long shot that streaked into the corner of the net for the 67th-minute winner.
The France forward, Atletico's leading scorer with 12 goals in all competitions, rushed to embrace Simeone on the sidelines. The goal that left Atletico level on 35 points with defending champion Barcelona and extended the team's winning streak to eight games overall.
"Griezmann is a one-of-a-kind player," Niguez said. "When he touches the ball, it is going in."
Madrid was also aiming to capitalize on Barcelona's slip from Saturday, but Villarreal physically bossed the star-studded visitors and created a constant threat during a first half that Madrid was fortunate to finish only one goal down.
Jonathan Dos Santos set the tone four minutes in when he rattled the upright with a long-distance strike, after Cedric Bakambu set him up following an electrifying run through the heart of Madrid's defense.
It was a warning for what soon followed. Bruno Soriano tackled Luka Modric to recover the ball and send it forward to Bakambu, who slid a pass over for Soldado to sweep between the legs of goalie Keylor Navas.
Bakambu and Soldado continued to torment Madrid's backline, with Soldado playing Bakambu through on the break only for his shot to roll wide before the half-hour mark.
Sergio Ramos and Pepe soon were scrambling again to frustrate another vibrant Villarreal move forward that almost left Denis Suarez with a shot inside the box, before another flowing series of passes ended with Bakambu firing high.
Overrun in the first half, Madrid roared out of the halftime break, but failed to finish off its chances.
Cristiano Ronaldo shot high before Karim Benzema had Madrid's first two clear scoring opportunities that both missed by inches.
Gareth Bale then drew a save from goalie Alphonse Areola before Benzema was all alone but headed well wide.
Earlier, Valencia remained winless in its second match since Gary Neville took over as coach after needing an own goal to salvage a 1-1 draw at Eibar.
Malaga also got its first away win of the season, a 2-1 victory at Rayo Vallecano thanks to Duje Cop's winning goal with three minutes remaining.