Real Madrid stumbled to a damaging 0-0 draw at Real Betis on Sunday, leaving them nine points behind leaders Barcelona in the Liga title race.
After the Catalans beat Valencia 1-0 earlier to extend their lead, Madrid needed to win at the Benito Villamarin to maintain the seven-point deficit they started the weekend with.
Reigning Spanish champions Madrid forged the better openings and turned the screw in the final stages, but could not find the goal they needed to stay as close as possible on Barcelona’s tail.
Karim Benzema had a free-kick strike disallowed for a handball by team-mate Antonio Rudiger, while Betis goalkeeper Claudio Bravo made fine saves to deny the French forward and Vinicius Junior.
Thibaut Courtois was also forced into two superb stops by Betis who showed why they are in contention for a Champions League place next season with a hearty performance.
“We lacked a bit of accuracy in the final third, the last pass to create clearer chances and we don’t leave here happy, at all,” Madrid defender Lucas Vazquez told Movistar.
“No (the league is not lost), we’re in March, we know it is complicated and we will fight until the end because we truly believe that we can turn it around.”
Carlo Ancelotti set up in a 4-4-2 with Vinicius and Fede Valverde on the wings, with Rodrygo partnering Benzema up front.
Betis were missing injured playmakers Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales, although the latter should return to face Manchester United on Thursday in the Europa League.
Rodri Sanchez played as the central attacking midfielder and shone as Betis gave as good as they got against second place Madrid.
Courtois was alert to palm away a stinging drive from Ayoze Perez, before the home fans chanted Fekir’s name after eight minutes — his shirt number — showing their support after he was ruled out until next season with a knee injury.
Benzema thought he had fired Real Madrid ahead with a deflected free-kick, but the goal was ruled out by VAR as the ball struck his team-mate Rudiger’s forearm.
Battle with Vinicius
Eduardo Camavinga, selected at left-back, teed up Vinicius, who fired over the bar.
The Brazilian, as has become customary in La Liga, was engaged in a running battle with the Betis defence.
Vinicius has not scored away from home in the top flight since August, but brilliantly set up Benzema at the start of the second half with former Barcelona stopper Bravo parrying the effort.
It was Madrid’s first shot on target since last weekend’s draw against Atletico Madrid, after they failed to manage any against Barcelona in their Copa del Rey defeat on Thursday.
Los Blancos have scored just once in their last three games.
Courtois made a stunning save to thwart Borja Iglesias at the other end, when the striker seemed poised to score.
“We had moments in which we had clear openings, my chance with Thibaut,” Iglesias told Movistar.
“That’s why this guy wins what he wins — he saves a lot.”
Rodrygo should have put Madrid ahead at the end of a fine break but fired over from Valverde’s cross from eight yards.
Dani Ceballos, on as a substitute for Madrid, and whistled by his former side’s fans, stroked an effort narrowly wide with 15 minutes remaining. Vinicius was denied by Bravo at the near post.
Benzema blazed over from distance in stoppage time with an ambitious effort, but Betis held on and came close themselves with a Luiz Henrique drive which whistled narrowly wide.