MADRID - Atletico Madrid squandered a chance to climb above Barcelona to the top of La Liga when they conceded a late penalty and were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Sevilla on Sunday.
An off-colour Barca had to come from behind to rescue a point in the earlier kickoff at mid-table Levante but Atletico were unable to capitalise on the champions' unexpected setback.
David Villa smashed in a loose ball to put Atletico ahead in the 18th minute at the Calderon and the home side looked to be coasting to victory until Juanfran hauled Carlos Bacca to the ground in the area in the 71st minute and Ivan Rakitic clipped home the spot-kick.
The result meant Barca and Atletico, who drew 0-0 in Madrid last weekend, are level on 51 points at the top with just over half the season played, with Barca ahead on goal difference.
Real Madrid gained further ground and sit a point behind the joint leaders thanks to Saturday's 5-0 drubbing of bottom side Real Betis in Seville.
Real and Barca, the world's two richest clubs by income, have dominated La Liga over the past decade but Atletico have emerged as genuine contenders for the title this season under Argentine coach Diego Simeone.
"The whole Sevilla bench celebrated at the end of the match as if they had won a final and that shows that teams respect us," Atletico fullback Felipe Luis said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
"Teams have changed the way they play against us and now they don't come here to win," added the Brazilian.
"They always put a lot of people behind the ball and we find it tough to create scoring chances.
"But we haven't lost here and we just have to keep improving. Physically the team is in good shape but competing against two teams (Barca and Real) who have players on the bench worth 40 or 50 million euros is very tough."
Barca lacked inspiration against a doggedly defensive Levante at their Ciutat de Valencia stadium even with Lionel Messi, who returned last weekend after a two-month injury absence, back in the starting lineup.
Often vulnerable when defending set-pieces, they fell behind in the 10th minute when Loukas Vyntra headed past goalkeeper Victor Valdes from an Andreas Ivanschitz corner.
Barca's equaliser also came from a corner when Gerard Pique nodded in nine minutes later but they struggled to create further chances before the break.
Messi drew a fine save from Levante keeper Keylor Navas in the 59th minute and Xavi's follow-up shot was brilliantly blocked on the line by home captain Juanfran.
Juanfran was again in the right place to divert another Messi effort out for a corner three minutes later and Navas leaped superbly to turn a curling effort from substitute Cristian Tello around the post five minutes from time.
"We tried and we did it well," Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference.
"Down the wings, through the middle, trying to make the breakthrough," added the Argentine.
"We are coming away feeling sad because we were not able to get the victory. We know that this kind of match nine times out of 10 we would win."
Barca were unable to produce the scintillating form that helped them thump Levante 7-0 at the Nou Camp in August and they also play the Valencia-based club over two legs in the quarter-finals of the King's Cup this week and next.
Athletic Bilbao can reclaim fourth spot from Villarreal with a win at home to struggling Real Valladolid on Monday.
Villarreal have 37 points after they beat visiting Almeria 2-0 on Sunday, with Bilbao on 36 and Basque rivals Real Sociedad on 33 in sixth after they let slip a two-goal lead and drew 2-2 at 10-man Getafe.
Sevilla, who had Alberto Moreno sent off in the 90th minute, have 31 points in seventh. (Editing by Ed Osmond)