MADRID  - Stuttering Real Madrid have Barcelona breathing down their necks after their La Liga lead was cut to just four points following a 0-0 draw with third-placed Valencia on Sunday.
Real started well with Cristiano Ronaldo hitting the post early on, but they were unable to maintain the impetus and Valencia also hit the woodwork in both halves through Ricardo Costa and Tino Costa. Karim Benzema was denied by a double save from keeper Vicente Guaita as Real pressed late on but Valencia also had their chances with Jordi Alba denied in a one-on-one with keeper Iker Casillas.
Real have now drawn three of their last five games in the league and face a crunch few weeks where they play derby rivals Atletico Madrid and tackle Barcelona in El Clasico. "It was a game where we had chances to score right to the end, we had the support of the fans and now we continue forward with our four-point lead ," said Real assistant coach Aitor Karanka.
"We are happy with the way we are playing and are looking forward to the next game. We are confident in the project and that has not changed." Valencia coach Unai Emery felt that his side could have got more from the game. "It is difficult to play at the Bernabeu with Real Madrid playing well and very strong so we knew that we had to follow our strategy of keeping the ball and counter-attacking," he said. Champions Barcelona have hit form at the right time with their 4-1 victory over 10-man Zaragoza on Saturday their ninth in succession. That game also saw Lionel Messi become the first player in almost 40 years to score 60 goals in a single European top-flight season after he bagged a double. Messi's 23 goals from the last 12 games helped him arrive at the landmark, the first time since Gerd Muller scored 67 goals in the 1972-73 season for Bayern Munich.
On Sunday, with Sergio Ramos suspended for Real Madrid, Raul Albiol was preferred to partner Pepe at centre half after a solid performance last weekend in the 5-1 victory over Osasuna. Coach Jose Mourinho also once again chose all-out attack with Gonzalo Higuain and Benzema starting along with Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo. The visitors were pressed back after a lively start from Real and Ronaldo had several shots from the edge of the area including a drive after seven minutes which came back off the post. In response, Sofiane Feghouli offered a warning at the other end with a strike which went narrowly wide but with Ozil also teasing the defence, and Higuain making threatening runs, a Real goal appeared on the cards.
Guaita pushed away another Ronaldo strike from 18 yards and then a Higuain cross was just too high for the Portuguese to steer goalwards. Gradually Valencia were coming more into the game and the Real defence was looking hesitant, notably when Tino Costa was given time to shoot inside the area after 25 minutes and Casillas could only parry the ball to Ricardo Costa who headed against the post.
A well-organised Valencia were taking advantage of the gaps left in midfield and Casillas was called on again to make an important save from Feghouli. Mourinho brought on Angel Di Maria for Higuain after the break, but they were lucky not go behind after 55 minutes when Valencia were again denied by the post, this time a powerful shot from distance by Tino Costa.
Di Maria had an effort stopped by Guaita before the shot-stopper did extremely well to deny Benzema twice from close range with ten minutes to go. Casillas was kept busy making a good block from substitute Jeremy Mathieu and he also stopped Alba in his tracks inside the penalty area in a frantic finale.
Levante moved up to fourth after two goals from Valdo Lopes and Arouna Kone inside the first ten minutes gave them a 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid who saw Joao Miranda sent off late on.
Fernando Llorente scored the only goal as Athletic Bilbao beat Sevilla 1-0 while Mallorca and Granada ended in a 0-0 stalemate .