- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Barcelona stumbled for a third straight match in its quest to defend its Spanish league title after losing at Real Sociedad 1-0 on Saturday, letting Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid tighten the race even further.

Barcelona had 84 minutes to turn around Mikel Oyarzabal’ opening goal, but a stagnant attack in the first half and goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli’s late saves to deny Lionel Messi guaranteed some drama for the season’s end.

A middling team in La Liga for several seasons, Sociedad once again proved to be Barcelona’s peculiar nemesis as the powerhouse failed to leave Anoeta Stadium with a victory for a sixth consecutive visit.

Barcelona’s latest loss in San Sebastian came after Atletico fought back at Espanyol to win 3-1, and Cristiano Ronaldo led Madrid’s 4-0 rout of Eibar.

Two rounds ago, Barcelona was nine points clear after a draw at Villarreal and the title race appeared to be all but decided. Now, after losses to Madrid and at Sociedad, Barcelona’s lead has dwindled to three points over Atletico and four over Madrid with six rounds left.

Barcelona hadn’t gone three league games without a win since May 2014 and hadn’t lost two straight rounds since November 2014.

“We had built up a cushion of points so we could, let’s say, allow ourselves to have some setbacks,” Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta said. “And now we have allowed about all we can.”

Barcelona coach Luis Enrique rotated his squad with the visit to Atletico in the Champions League on Wednesday looming. Regular second-choice midfielders Arda Turan and Rafina got the nod, while Munir El Haddadi filled in for the suspended Luis Suarez, the club’s top scorer.

Sociedad got a great start when 18-year-old Oyarzabal headed Xabi Prieto’s excellent cross beyond the reach of Claudio Bravo. The Basque club then settled in and limited the work of Rulli, who came through with key stops that were celebrated by both of the fan bases in the Spanish capital.

Luis Enrique sent on Iniesta for Rafina at halftime and his long strike forced Rulli to stretch to parry the ball. Jordi Alba soon followed to replace Turan, and Ivan Rakitic later substituted Sergi Roberto. Although Barcelona created more chances, including two each for Messi and Iniesta, Rulli made sure Sociedad recorded its fourth consecutive home win against Barcelona.

While Messi went a fourth straight match without a goal, Ronaldo reached the 30-goal mark in the Spanish league for a sixth season in a row.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane also rested several first-choice players for his team’s critical Champions League match on Tuesday, when Madrid will need to overturn a 2-0 deficit to Wolfsburg to make the semifinals.

Little did it matter against modest Eibar as James Rodriguez opened the scoring at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium with a free kick in the fifth minute.

Ronaldo then set up goals for Lucas Vazquez and Jese Rodriguez on either side of his own strike to decide the result before halftime.

Gareth Bale, Marcelo, and Toni Kroos never left Madrid’s bench while Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, and Keylor Navas weren’t on the squad ahead of the visit by Wolfsburg.

Diego Simeone held nothing back at Espanyol despite Atletico’s own Champions League return leg against Barcelona on Wednesday, when the Catalan club visits with a 2-1 advantage.

Pape Diop gave Espanyol the lead near the half-hour mark, but Fernando Torres expertly controlled Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion’s lobbed pass before driving in the equalizer in the 35th.

Antoine Griezmann put Atletico in charge by shooting the ball in off the upright after a brilliant buildup through Koke and Torres in the second half. He extended his league scoring streak to seven rounds with his 20th goal of the competition.

Koke and Torres connected again to seal the win with two minutes left, this time the striker passing for Koke to head in.

“We are focused and persistent and keep on fighting,” Simeone said.

Elsewhere, Real Betis edged bottom-side Levante 1-0 thanks to Ruben Castro’s late goal.

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