Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both stumbled to draws on Sunday, results that tighten the La Liga title race by leaving Real Madrid only one point behind the co-leaders.
Barcelona’s potent attack was held 1-1 at Levante UD, leaving the door open for Atletico to later claim sole possession of the league lead.
However, los Colchoneros conceded a second-half penalty at home against Sevilla to also finish 1-1 and squander their chance to solely occupy the top of the table for the first time since September 2010.
“We had a good opportunity, but this is a long race,” Atletico defender Filipe Luis said. “It’s very difficult to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona.”
Real trailed the co-leaders by five points two rounds ago, but while they have kept on winning — most recently with a 5-0 rout of bottom-side Real Betis Balompie 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 their staunch defense did enough to take a measure of vengeance for the 7-0 thrashing Barcelona dealt them 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,” Barca striker Lionel Messi said. “We did everything possible to win.”
Elsewhere in La Liga, striker Ikechukwu Uche scored his sixth goal in his past three league games to help Villarreal beat UD 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 last year, Levante lived up to their reputation as one of the league’s best defenses by packing their 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 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 the shot.
Garcia was well-positioned to block Xavi’s follow-up attempt and three minutes later, the centerback 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. However, Navas palmed Tello’s late attempt wide to protect the point.
“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 the Estadio Vicente Calderon.