Real Madrid were held to a 0-0 draw at Real Betis on Sunday to fall nine points behind leaders Barcelona at the top of the LaLiga table.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois tipped an early shot from Real Betis forward Ayoze Perez over the bar before striker Karim Benzema had a goal for Real Madrid disallowed when his free kick touched Antonio Rudiger's arm on its way into the back of the net.
Claudio Bravo made a save on Benzema after halftime, and Courtois denied Borja Iglesias with a point-blank stop at the other end, before Real Madrid forward Rodrygo Goes missed perhaps the game's best chance, skying Federico Valverde's cross off target.
1. Is the LaLiga title race over as Real Madrid keep losing ground?
Real Madrid will keep fighting until the end of the season -- the club's high standards demand nothing less -- but this draw saw Barcelona's lead at the top of LaLiga extended to nine points, and it's hard to envisage a scenario in which Barca's efficient, if unspectacular, team under manager Xavi squanders that advantage.
Real Madrid's performance here was not poor. Real Betis are a good team and the Estadio Benito Villamarin is an intimidating arena, but Madrid were the better side, dominating possession, creating more chances and ending the game with an expected goals of 1.21 to Betis' 0.41. They were frustrated by some poor finishing, and a solid display by veteran Claudio Bravo in the Betis goal.
As Madrid chased a winner, however, the limitations of their squad were on display. Coach Carlo Ancelotti appeared reluctant to introduce attacking alternatives off the bench, with defenders Dani Carvajal and Nacho and midfielder Dani Ceballos all sent on before youngster Alvaro Rodriguez was finally called upon in the 87th minute.
A 0-0 draw here is no embarrassment, but in the context of a title race where Madrid simply couldn't afford to drop any more points, it's a bitter blow.
2. Rodrygo almost made up for Madrid's below-par attack
This was another game that fed the doubts around Karim Benzema's ability to return to the out-of-this-world performance levels that earned him the Ballon d'Or last year. Yes, he was a little unlucky that his free kick brushed Rudiger's arm on its way into the net, but otherwise, this was a disappointingly quiet night for the 35-year-old.
The best of Madrid's attack was Rodrygo, enjoying the rare opportunity to play in his favoured role -- inside, behind a centre-forward, with freedom to roam, and with Valverde covering the right side. It's a role that gets the best out of his intelligent movement, close control and ability to take players on. He was only let down by a bad second-half miss.
Vinicius Junior looked dangerous at times, but distracted at others, getting caught up in disputes with Betis players and the referee, while late substitute Alvaro barely had any time to make an impact. Madrid's failure to score here added to the case for a top-level addition to their attack this summer.
3. Betis impress without best players, poised for Champions League
Manuel Pellegrini's Betis are a proper team, and at the start of a big week for the club -- they face Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Europa League on Thursday -- they showed here why they're serious contenders to finish in the LaLiga top four.
With arguably their most talented players -- creative midfielders Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales -- both absent, they still managed to push Madrid to their limits, and could have come away with all three points were it not for some trademark saves from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Betis are now fifth, three points behind Real Sociedad, but with the Basque side showing signs of tiring, Betis have the squad to go all the way, even with the twin demands -- for now -- of LaLiga and European football. A top-four finish to secure a Champions League spot is in full view.
Best and worst performers
Best: Federico Valverde, Real Madrid
He was Madrid's best player and caused Betis real problems getting forward on the right.
Best: Claudio Bravo, Real Betis
The goalkeeper made a number of important saves.
Best: Aitor Ruibal, Real Betis
Although the breakthrough never came, he was probably Betis' most dangerous player in attack.
Worst: Borja Iglesias, Real Betis
He had a difficult night in attack and failed to make an impact.
Worst: Karim Benzema, Real Madrid
It was another underwhelming performance from Real Madrid's star striker, and another disallowed goal.
Worst: Toni Kroos, Real Madrid
He was unable to exert his usual influence in midfield.
Highlights and notable moments
Well, given that this match finished 0-0, the selection of highlights was minimal.
FILTH FROM CAMAVINGA 🔥 pic.twitter.com/kIgcqgABoF— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 5, 2023
After the match: What the managers and players said
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti on the performance: "It was a difficult game, above all because we could have been more efficient in attack, we had chances, we could have done better with them. We lacked efficiency. That's the reality, in these games we've only scored from a set piece, it's obvious what's lacking, we have to be more effective. We have the quality, we have to do better, more efficient, more clinical. It's a moment like that, we have to improve."
Ancelotti on whether Real Madrid can still win the LaLiga title race: "Yes, it's possible -- it isn't impossible, so it's possible. It's very difficult but we will fight until the end and we'll see. ... It's quite unusual for Madrid to score one goal from a set piece in three [league] games. We scored five at Anfield, so it's strange."
Ancelotti on why his team didn't pump more balls into the box to force Real Betis to defend more: "I agree. Sometimes we didn't choose the best solution, [Eder] Militao played a fantastic game in defence with Rudiger, but we lacked that, choosing the best solution, dribbling when you shouldn't, trying a one-two, passing instead of shooting. It isn't an individual problem, it's a collective problem."
Real Madrid right-back Lucas Vazquez in the result: "The team deserved to get something more here, we lacked being a bit more clinical in the final third, that final ball, to be able to create clearer chances. We aren't happy with the draw at all."
Vazquez on whether the title race is over: "Not at all. It's March. We know it's difficult, it's a big gap but we'll fight until the end, we believe we can turn it around."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
After scoring in their first 29 games this season in all competitions, Real Madrid have been shut out for the fourth time in their last 11 games.
Real Madrid have had seven goals overturned by VAR this season in LaLiga, the most by any team in Europe's top five leagues this season ahead of AC Milan (six) and RB Leipzig and Juventus (five each).
Real Betis: Los Verdiblancos shift focus to the UEFA Europa League when they visit Manchester United on Thursday, March 9. Then, Real Betis visit Villarreal on Sunday, March 12 in LaLiga (stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET).
Real Madrid: Los Blancos continue their LaLiga campaign by hosting Espanyol on Saturday, March 11 (stream live on ESPN+ at 8 a.m. ET). Then, Real Madrid host Liverpool in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday, March 15.