La Liga title race tightens as Barca and Atletico both held to draws
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both stumbled to draws on Sunday, tightening the Spanish league title race with Real Madrid now only one point behind the co-leaders.
Barcelona's potent attack led by Lionel Messi was held 1-1 at Levante, leaving the door open for Atletico to later claim sole possession of the league lead.
But Atletico conceded a second-half penalty at home against Sevilla to also finish 1-1 and squander its chance to rise to the sole lead in the standings for the first time since September 2010.
''We had a good opportunity, but this is a long race,'' said Atletico defender Filipe Luis. ''It's very difficult to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona.''
Madrid trailed the co-leaders by five points two rounds ago, but while it has kept on winning- most recently with a 5-0 rout of bottom-side Real Betis on Saturday- Barcelona and Atletico drew with one another last round and have slipped again just past the season's midway mark.
Levante went ahead through Loukas Vyntra's 10th-minute header, and its staunch defense did enough to take a measure of vengeance for the 7-0 thrashing Barcelona dealt the team in the season opener.
Gerard Pique leveled for Barcelona in the 19th, but Levante defender Juanfran Garcia saved the visitors' two best chances in the second half.
''We were unlucky because we created scoring chances,'' Messi said. ''We did everything possible to win.''
Elsewhere, striker Ikechukwu Uche scored his sixth goal in his last three league games to help Villarreal beat Almeria 2-0, while Getafe erased a two-goal deficit to earn a 2-2 draw at home with Real Sociedad.
Far from the side that Barcelona humiliated in August, Levante lived up to its reputation as one of the league's best defenses by packing its area and largely limiting the visitors to long strikes that either crashed into bodies or sailed harmlessly wide.
Joaquin Caparros' side claimed the early lead when Vyntra rose up over Pique to head Andreas Ivanschitz's corner kick down and beyond the diving goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
Pique made up for his slack marking by scoring an almost exact replica of the opener, jumping higher than a pair of defenders to redirect Xavi Hernandez's corner inside the far post.
Messi, in his fourth game back after a long injury layoff, worked a one-two passing combination in close quarters with Cesc Fabregas to manufacture Barcelona's best chance in the 59th, but goalkeeper Keylor Navas saved Messi's shot. Garcia was well positioned to block Xavi's follow-up attempt, and three minutes later the center back used his foot to turn away Messi's goal-bound strike.
Barcelona's frustrating night was summed up when Fabregas violently struck the dugout cover after coach Gerardo Martino replaced him with Sergio Roberto in the 73rd.
With Neymar and Andres Iniesta both unavailable due to injury, Martino turned to Cristian Tello and B-team forward Jean Dongou as late substitutes, but Levante held firm.
''In our first meeting (with Barcelona) it felt like a tribute game to Neymar in his debut,'' Caparros said. ''My team has changed a lot because you can't make a team in a day, not even in two or four months.''
Atletico started brightly when David Villa rifled in a clearance by Sevilla goalkeeper Antonio ''Beto'' Bastos in the 18th at Vicente Calderon Stadium.
But Atletico didn't seriously threaten to extend its advantage and it was undone when defender Juanfran Torres pulled Sevilla striker Carlos Bacca down by his shirt in the area.
Ivan Rakitic fired the spot kick into the corner of the net, just out of the reach of goalie Thibaut Courtois for the 73rd-minute equalizer.
Sevilla finished with 10 men when Alberto Moreno was sent off with a straight red card for a low tackle in the 89th.
Uche's strike against lowly Almeria was his 12th league goal this season, tying him with Sociedad's Antoine Griezmann as the competition's third-leading scorers.
Villarreal provisionally moved into fourth place with its third straight victory. Athletic Bilbao can reclaim Spain's last Champions League spot when it plays Valladolid on Monday.