By Rik Sharma
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Champions Barcelona fell to an unexpected 3-1 defeat at Levante, while Real Madrid drew 0-0 at home against Real Betis. Here are five talking points from the action in La Liga.
La Liga’s big guns misfiring
Barcelona moved top of the table in midweek but defeat at Levante dealt their title defence a blow.
Ernesto Valverde’s side looked short on ideas and quality, beyond talisman and captain Lionel Messi, who broke the deadlock.
Despite the unexpected defeat, the chasing pack could not wrestle the lead away from the Catalans.
Atletico Madrid drew at Sevilla while Real Madrid could not find a way past Real Betis.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad, who beat Granada, are level on 22 points. Barca and Real both have a game in hand because of the postponed Clasico.
With Atletico Madrid and Sevilla on 21 points, Granada on 20 and Getafe on 19, the championship race remains tight as Spain’s top sides have not been able to push ahead like they normally do.
Valverde pays for Dembele snub
Barcelona B winger Carles Perez and Juvenil A forward Ansu Fati came off the bench during the champions’ defeat by Levante, but neither made any difference.
Coach Ernesto Valverde had left 147 million euro winger Ousmane Dembele at home, even though he is not suspended or injured.
The French forward is unpredictable, hard for defences to handle, and might have been able to offer Barcelona the dynamism they lacked on Spain’s east coast.
Valverde is trusting some players less than before, including Ivan Rakitic and Samuel Umtiti, who have also not featured much.
Madrid improved but lacking killer instinct
Real Madrid turned in a dominant display against Real Betis but ended up drawing 0-0 in coach Zinedine Zidane’s only goalless draw at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Betis arrived in the Spanish capital with the worst defence in the division, 21 goals conceded from the first 11 games, but left with a clean sheet after superb goalkeeping from Joel Robles and profligate Madrid finishing.
Karim Benzema has carried Los Blancos over the past year but if the French striker is shut-out then his team mates need to step up and deliver.
Although Granada took the plaudits last weekend as they topped the table, Real Sociedad are arguably the season’s most impressive side.
Even without injured on-loan playmaker Martin Odegaard, who has enjoyed a fine season, they beat Granada 2-1 on Sunday.
Real Sociedad are playing better attacking football than any other side in Spain and even though they were not at their best against Granda, they deserved victory.
Atletico Madrid may be struggling, drawing 1-1 at Sevilla on Saturday, but striker Alvaro Morata is thriving.
The former Chelsea and Real Madrid forward has scored in his last four games and has outshone Diego Costa, who is struggling for goals.
A worry for manager Diego Simeone is that nobody else seems to be scoring, with injured record signing Joao Felix scoring only twice in the league so far this season.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)