Barcelona drew 0-0 at Osasuna and Atletico Madrid fell 1-0 at Espanyol on Saturday, leaving both teams one victory shy of matching a 45-year-old Spanish league record of wins to start the season.
Real Madrid reduced the gap with the two top sides by beating Malaga 2-0, and then watched both its rivals squander their chances to equal the milestone of nine wins in as many opening rounds it set in 1968.
Barcelona remained league leader by one point ahead of Atletico, with Madrid another two points behind and the first clasico match of the season looming next weekend at Camp Nou.
First, however, Barcelona visits AC Milan on Tuesday and Madrid hosts Juventus the next day in the Champions League. Atletico visits Austria Wien also on Tuesday.
Real Sociedad broke an eight-game winless streak in all competitions with a morale-boosting 2-1 victory at Valencia before it travels to Manchester United on Wednesday in Europe’s top-tier competition. Antoine Griezmann opened and Ruben Pardo added a long strike for Sociedad before Valencia’s Dorlan Pabon grabbed a consolation goal.
Saturday saw the return of Lionel Messi for Barcelona and Gareth Bale for Madrid from nagging muscle injuries. While Messi couldn’t muster a shot after going on in the 68th minute against the well-organized Osasuna, Bale earned a questionable penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo converted in injury time to seal Madrid’s victory over Malaga.
Barcelona was bolstered by the return of veteran defender Carles Puyol, who played all 90 minutes of his first game in seven months after recuperating from knee surgery.
“Each day I feel better,” said Puyol. “(These last months) have been hard. But that’s over. Now the good part comes.”
Faced with Neymar’s diabolical dribbling, Osasuna renounced the ball, packed its midfield, and hung on to a point its fans celebrated wildly and coach Javi Gracia said “tastes like a win.”
“Normally we win a game like this,” said Barcelona coach Gerard Martino. “I am fine with our performance. Osasuna can hurt you on its pitch, and we didn’t suffer in defense. We didn’t take away the three points because we wasted our opportunities. In the first half we couldn’t make that last pass. We either came up centimeters short or made the wrong decision.”
Atletico had gone unbeaten through 12 matches in Spain and abroad this season.
And its first defeat only came through an own goal after its rising talent Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion volleyed Diego Costa’s pass off the woodwork in an otherwise defence-dominated first half at Cornella-El Prat Stadium.
But Espanyol broke through in the 54th when Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois redirected Juan Fuente’s cross into his own net in a failed attempt to block its trajectory with his outstretched boot.
Earlier in Madrid, Angel Di Maria scored seconds after halftime with a cross intended for Ronaldo that caught Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero out of position.
Madrid improved as the match went on and only Caballero stopped the hosts from recording a bigger win.
Caballero made an excellent reflex save with his left foot to deny Ronaldo from close range in the 82nd and two minutes later used his right hand to parry substitute Jese Rodriguez’s low shot past his upright.
Di Maria said he wanted to see Caballero join him on Argentina’s national team as it prepares for the 2014 World Cup.
“I believe Caballero deserves to go,” Di Maria said.
But Caballero couldn’t reach Ronaldo’s well-placed spot kick after Bale, who had gone on for the final 15 minutes, went flying to the turf following what appeared to be light contact with Malaga defender Weligton.
Ronaldo’s eighth goal of the season took him level with Messi. Both trail Atletico’s Diego Costa with 10.
“My players’ attitudes were much better,” said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who this week said his team played so poorly recently it could only improve.
“We defended well, were more aggressive and played with our lines closer together,” he said. “I hope to see this same intensity in the games to come.”
Ancelotti said striker Karim Benzema would be back in his squad against Juventus after he missed Saturday’s game due to a leg knock he had picked up in training. Youngster Alvaro Morata started in his place and was Madrid’s most active player in an otherwise dull first half.
Osasuna midfielder Sisinio Gonalez tore a left knee ligament early in the game and may be out for the rest of the season.