- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Real Madrid lost 1-0 at Villarreal to fall five points behind the Spanish league’s two frontrunners on Sunday, after Atletico Madrid pulled level with leader Barcelona by fighting back to win 2-1 against Athletic Bilbao.

Roberto Soldado scored Villarreal’s winner eight minutes into a first half it completely dominated, before the hosts held off Madrid’s furious response after the break.

Cut adrift by the pacesetters, Madrid’s defeat left it just two points above fourth-place Celta Vigo and three ahead of Villarreal in fifth.

The stumble will add even more pressure on already questioned coach Rafa Benitez after a difficult month that included a 4-0 loss to Barcelona and disqualification from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player.

Madrid not only saw Atletico pull away, it also failed to take advantage of defending champion Barcelona’s second second consecutive draw in the league, when held 2-2 by Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday.

“To fight for this league you need to win a lot of matches. And matches like this - that you go into with favorable conditions - are the ones you have to win,” Benitez said. “We didn’t play well in the first half, and the only positive thing I can take away is my team’s reaction in the second.”

While Benitez will face even more criticism back in the capital, the 15th round of matches went perfectly for Diego Simeone.

His Atletico again showed it has rediscovered the same knack for pulling out wins from its 2014 championship campaign.

“We stay on course, trying to always improve, without looking at the rest,” Simeone said. “We don’t understand any other way forward than by our own effort. We don’t evaluate the season halfway through.”

Saul Niguez started Atletico’s comeback when he equalized from a corner kick right before halftime to cancel out Aymeric Laporte’s 26th-minute opener for Bilbao.

With Bilbao dictating the flow of play and Simeone calling for the home fans to rally his side, Antoine Griezmann unleashed a long shot that streaked into the corner of the net for the 67th-minute winner.

The France forward, Atletico’s leading scorer with 12 goals in all competitions, rushed to embrace Simeone on the sidelines to celebrate putting the team on its way to an eighth straight victory overall.

“Griezmann is a one-of-a-kind player,” Niguez said. “When he touches the ball, it is going in.”

Madrid was also aiming to capitalize on Barcelona’s slip, but Villarreal physically bossed the star-studded visitors and created a constant threat during a first half that Madrid was fortunate to finish only one goal down.

Jonathan Dos Santos set the tone four minutes in when he rattled the upright with strike, after Cedric Bakambu set him up following an electrifying run through the heart of Madrid’s defense.

It was a warning for what soon followed. Bruno Soriano tackled Luka Modric to recover the ball and send it forward to Bakambu, who slid a pass over for Soldado to sweep between the legs of goalie Keylor Navas.

Bakambu and Soldado continued to torment Madrid’s backline, with Soldado playing Bakambu through on the break only for his shot to roll wide before the half-hour mark.

Sergio Ramos and Pepe soon were scrambling again to frustrate another vibrant Villarreal move forward that almost left Denis Suarez with a shot inside the box, before another flowing series of passes ended with Bakambu firing high.

“The first half was the best we have played this season, and we had a good deal of luck in the second,” said Villarreal coach Marcelino Garcia.

Overrun in the first half, Madrid roared out of the halftime break, but failed to finish off its chances.

Cristiano Ronaldo shot high before Karim Benzema had Madrid’s first two clear scoring opportunities that both missed by inches.

Gareth Bale then drew a save from goalie Alphonse Areola before Benzema was all alone but headed well wide.

Earlier, Valencia remained winless in its second match since Gary Neville took over as coach after needing an own goal to salvage a 1-1 draw at Eibar.

Malaga also got its first away win of the season, a 2-1 victory at Rayo Vallecano thanks to Duje Cop’s winning goal with three minutes remaining.

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