Real Madrid lost 1-0 at Villarreal to fall five points behind the Spanish league’s two frontrunners after Atlético Madrid pulled level with Barcelona by fighting back to win 2-1 at Athletic Bilbao.
Roberto Soldado scored Villarreal’s winner eight minutes into a first half they dominated before the hosts held off Real’s furious response after the break. Their defeat leaves Real only two points above fourth-placed Celta Vigo and three ahead of Villarreal in fifth.
The stumble will add even more pressure on Rafa Benítez after a difficult month that included a 4-0 defeat by Barcelona and disqualification from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player.
Saul Ñíguez and Antoine Griezmann scored for Atlético. Barcelona let slip a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 at home with Deportivo on Saturday.
At Villarreal the 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.
Real laid siege to the Villarreal goal in the second half but, despite a string of efforts, they managed only 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 Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema particularly wayward.
“We were not switched on at the start,” their 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.”