La Liga race tightens after Madrid derby draw
MADRID - The three-horse race for the La Liga title tightened on Sunday when leaders Real Madrid drew 2-2 at city rivals Atletico and Barcelona won 4-1 at home to Almeria.
Real needed a Cristiano Ronaldo goal eight minutes from time to rescue a point at Atletico's Calderon stadium in a typically feisty Madrid derby, before Lionel Messi became only the third player to reach 230 La Liga goals in Barca's victory at the Nou Camp.
With 12 matches left, Real lead on 64 points, with champions Barca, chasing a fifth title in six years, second on 63 and Atletico, who are mounting a genuine challenge for the first time since they last won La Liga in 1996, third on 61.
Atletico recovered from conceding in the third minute to lead Real 2-1 at halftime and were closing in on a first home win against their neighbours in nearly 15 years before Ronaldo pounced on a loose ball and fired low into the corner.
It was the Portugal forward's 23rd goal of the campaign and helped extend Real's unbeaten run to 28 matches, stretching back to a 2-1 reverse away to Barca at the end of October.
Atletico forced their way back into the game with the trademark intensity and aggression instilled in them by coach Diego Simeone but Real's superior quality proved decisive in the second half and earned them a deserved point.
"The draw leaves us feeling a bit disappointed because in the second half we were clearly dominating and deserved another goal or two," Real captain Sergio Ramos said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
"We are still three points clear and we need to keep improving and collecting points," added the Spain centre back.
The fans had barely settled into their seats when Real took the lead after Karim Benzema stole in and poked a cross from Angel Di Maria past Thibaut Courtois from close range.
Benzema and Ronaldo, the league's leading scorer, each tested Courtois before clever work from Atletico's Turkey playmaker Arda Turan led to the equaliser in the 28th minute.
After twisting and turning on the edge of the Real penalty area, Arda threaded a pass through to Koke and his powerful low shot flew into the corner past Diego Lopez.
Captain Gabi scored the best goal of the game moments before halftime to put the home side ahead, with a 30-metre screamer that seem to deceive Lopez in flight as it rocketed into the net.
Real gradually turned the screw as Atletico tired in the second half and it was little surprise when a defensive lapse led to Ronaldo's late equaliser.
"I am coming away with a bad taste in my mouth," Gabi told Canal Plus.
"It was a very open match, with chances for both teams, and I am proud of Atletico Madrid," he added.
"We wanted to show this intensity and desire to the fans and I think that's what we did."
Recent matches between Real and Atletico have been soured by bad blood between some of the players and there was plenty of gamesmanship and play-acting on display.
Pepe threw himself theatrically to the ground after tangling with Atletico's Diego Godin late in the first half and the referee booked both centre backs.
The match official then sent German Burgos from the bench in the second half for protesting a decision and the Atletico assistant coach lost his cool and had to be restrained by players and coaching staff.
Atletico beat Real 1-0 at the Bernabeu in September and were looking to do the La Liga double over their neighbours for the first time since 1951.
Sunday's draw means they have a superior head-to-head record, which will be used to separate the pair should they end the season level on points.
At the Nou Camp, Barca appeared to be cruising after Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring in the ninth minute and Messi curled in a long-range free kick in the 24th.
It was the Argentina forward's 230th La Liga goal, putting him only four short of former Real forward Hugo Sanchez, who is second on the all-time list, and closer to record marksman Telmo Zarra on 251.
Barca dominated possession as usual but one of their weaknesses this season has been defending set pieces and Almeria pulled a goal back when Angel Trujillo headed in from a corner in the 26th minute.
Almeria did well to keep Barca at bay until seven minutes from time when Messi headed against the bar at a corner and captain Carles Puyol volleyed in the rebound and Xavi bent in a fourth in the 89th.
Villarreal and Real Sociedad lost ground on fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao, who won 4-0 at home to Granada on Friday and are six points clear in Spain's fourth and final Champions League qualification berth.
Villarreal drew 1-1 at home to bottom side Real Betis, while Sociedad, who beat Barca 3-1 in San Sebastian last weekend, lost 1-0 at Sevilla.
Villarreal have 44 points in fifth, one more than sixth-placed Sociedad, Sevilla are seventh on 38 and Valencia slipped to ninth below Levante after they were beaten 1-0 at second-from-bottom Rayo Vallecano.
(Editing by Steve Tongue and Toby Davis)