BARCELONA, Spain — Real Madrid squandered a great opening goal and a chance to catch Barcelona in the Spanish league standings when it slipped to a 2-2 draw at Valencia in a match it ended with 10 men on Sunday.
Madrid seemed set to romp to an easy victory after Karim Benzema finished off a superb move in the 16th minute, but Valencia’s Dani Parejo levelled from the penalty spot just before halftime.
Gareth Bale headed Madrid back in front in the 82nd despite his team playing a man down after Mateo Kovacic saw a direct red card, only for Paco Alcacer to strike right back for the hosts a minute later to spark a thrilling finish by both teams.
Coach Rafa Benitez will face even more scrutiny after Madrid failed to capitalize on Barcelona’s scoreless stalemate at Espanyol on Saturday and remained two points behind the defending champions, which have a game to play.
Madrid also fell four points behind provisional leader Atletico Madrid, the only title contender to win this round.
Benitez said "I can't stop some people from speculating" about his future.
"What I can do is get the team to work hard like they did today," he said. "We missed an opportunity - only if you look at the result. But the effort that my team made deserves more praise that anything else."
The struggling powerhouse, which has already been disqualified from the Copa del Rey for fielding an ineligible player, will also have to be careful not to be caught by fourth-place Villarreal after Bruno Soriano scored his second of two goals deep into stoppage time to grab a 2-1 victory at Deportivo La Coruna.
Benitez's latest stumble, which arrived after losses at home to Barcelona and away at Sevilla and Villarreal in the last eight rounds, came in his return to a Mestalla Stadium where he established his reputation with two league titles and a UEFA Cup trophy.
Benitez's counterpart, Gary Neville, remained winless in his fourth league game since taking over at Valencia, but his team earned a morale-boosting result.
"That was the best performance we have had over 90 minutes. It wasn't enough, but you have to be practical, Gareth Bale was on the other side," Neville said.
Madrid's strong start provoked panic in Valencia, which was hemmed into its box until Madrid got what seemed to be the inevitable opener from an exquisite combination by its three star strikers.
Bale started the move with an audacious back-heeled flick to send Benzema's pass to Cristiano Ronaldo, who slid the ball back for Benzema to slot his shot into the corner of the net.
But instead of going for a second goal to finish the hosts off, Madrid let complacency creep in and Valencia slowly began to push forward through midfielder Andres Gomes and forward Joao Cancelo.
Cancelo fired a warning shot across the far post of Keylor Navas' goal in the 31st, soon to be followed by Gomes and Aymen Abdennour forcing Madrid's backline to scramble.
Another Gomes incursion was only stopped when Pepe tripped him in the area, letting Parejo step up and level the score.
Madrid recovered some of its attacking verve after the restart, but it was stalled by Kovacic's sending-off for a lunging tackle on Cancelo in the 70th.
Toni Kroos, however, placed a free kick for Bale to rise up and gracefully head in off the far post to momentarily restore Madrid's lead.
But Valencia charged right back down to score when Rodrigo Moreno headed down a pass for Alcacer to nod home.
Both sides then had a chance to grab a last-gasp winner when substitute Alvaro Negredo failed to beat Navas one-on-one, before Bale fired high at the other end.
At Deportivo, Soriano gave Villarreal a first-half lead, before Luis Alberto made it 1-1 three minutes after halftime.
The match was heading toward a draw when a rash foul by Fernando Navarro on Matias Nahuel gave Soriano a spot kick that he converted five minutes into injury time to secure Villarreal a fifth straight win.
Villarreal moved one point adrift Madrid.
Also Sunday, it was: Athletic Bilbao 2, Las Palmas 2; Real Betis 0, Eibar 4; Granada 2, Sevilla 1; and Rayo Vallecano 2, Real Sociedad 2.