A superb strike from Jose Luis Morales condemned Real Madrid to a 1-0 defeat away to Levante on Saturday which saw them unseated at the top of the La Liga standings by Barcelona.
Real’s problems deepened with a suspected ankle injury to Eden Hazard, who limped off the pitch four days before their Champions League showdown with Manchester City and a week before their showdown with Barca in the ‘Clasico’.
Morales won the game with an unstoppable strike in the 79th minute, flummoxing Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois by blasting a first-time shot inside the near post from a tight angle.
Real’s first defeat in the league since October saw them fall to second place on 53 points after 25 games, while Levante climbed up to 10th.
Champions Barcelona replaced Zinedine Zidane’s side at the top of the table on 55 after hammering Eibar 5-0 earlier on, gaining five points on their arch rivals in the space of seven days, ahead of next Sunday’s ‘Clasico’ at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“A week ago we were three points clear and now we’re two points behind, that shows you cannot afford to switch off,” said Real defender Dani Carvajal.
“We wasted a lot of chances, we began well but got worse as the game went on and we have lost three points.”
Real were looking to respond after last week’s surprise 2-2 draw at home to struggling Celta Vigo but struggled to cope with a Levante side who seem to relish playing the biggest sides at home and beat Barca 3-1 earlier this season at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium.
Zidane did not hide his frustration at losing the game but said he was not worried about the ramifications of the last two results.
“I’m not worried at all, this is football and things like this can happen. We have had good some very good moments this season and I’m not going to give up after two bad results,” the Frenchman told reporters.
“We believe we can move on from this with strength, belief and energy. This is a bad run, but we have to focus on next week.
“Right now we are very frustrated because this is a defeat which hurts us a lot but football always gives you another match to redeem yourself.”
The visitors’ best chance fell to Hazard, who scuffed the ball when he had a clear sight of goal early in the second half.
A few minutes later he left the pitch looking in pain, in only his second game back from an ankle injury that ruled out him of action for almost three months.
“I think it’s a knock to the same area where he suffered his last injury and it does not look good,” Zidane added.
Slideshow (10 Images)
The only goal of the match arrived when it was least expected, when the ball bounced into the path of Morales, who is nicknamed ‘El Comandante’ and is something of a cult hero at the Valencia club.
He had not scored in the league since August but struck the ball perfectly, leaving a dumbstruck Courtois with no chance.
“I struck the ball with all my soul,” said Morales.
“I knew that I was running out of gas but I struck it really well. The ball gathered pace and I’m so happy for the goal and what it means, which is three points.”
Messi hits four goals as Barcelona hammer Eibar
Barcelona captain Lionel Messi was in a prolific mood as his side crushed Eibar 5-0 at home in La Liga on Saturday, scoring four goals to placate supporters who began the game by showing their discontent with president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
The win took Barca back to the top of La Liga on 55 points, two ahead of Real Madrid who visit Levante later on Saturday, and gave them a boost ahead of their Champions League last-16, first leg tie at Napoli on Tuesday.
Messi had not scored in his previous four games but put the Spanish champions ahead in the 14th minute by dancing and barging his way past three players to slot home for the opener.
He doubled the lead in the 37th with an equally impressive strike before completing his treble moments later and netted late in the second half for his fourth goal before Arthur Melo completed the drubbing with a tap-in.
The Argentine’s goals cheered fans who began the match waving handkerchiefs and calling for Bartomeu to resign after the club was embroiled in a scandal involving a firm hired to monitor coverage of the team on social media.
Messi indicated he was unhappy with those who run Barca in an interview with newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Friday in which he defended his recent outburst against sporting director Eric Abidal and said the team had faced “problem after problem”.
He had also questioned the strength of the Barcelona side, who he claimed were not strong enough at the moment to challenge for the Champions League.
Barca looked shaky in the early stages against Eibar and conceded a goal that was quickly ruled offside but they soon found their feet, led by Messi who was at his unplayable best.
After using a combination of strength and skill to score the first goal, he used his pace to dash past the Eibar defence down the left and lash the ball into the far bottom corner.
Messi then looked to tee up Antoine Griezmann but the French forward lost control of the ball and the Argentine cleaned up by tapping in the third goal.
Barca eased off for most of the second half but Messi showed no mercy when he received a pass from Arthur inside the area, toying with Eibar’s desperate defenders and goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic before walking the ball into the net for his fourth.
New signing Martin Braithwaite came off the bench to make his Barca debut after an unexpected move from league strugglers Leganes and the Denmark striker quickly made an impact by drilling a shot at Dmitrovic which Arthur buried on the rebound.