Barcelona drew 1-1 at Sporting Gijon on Saturday, bringing an end to the Spanish leaders’ record run of consecutive wins and breathing life into the league race.
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David Barral scored Sporting’s opener in the 16th. After some nice work down the left flank, the Spanish striker cut back across the area to separate from Gerard Pique and shot past goalkeeper Victor Valdes into the far corner of the net.
After Sporting played better in the first half, Barcelona dominated from the restart and David Villa leveled the score in the 80th, beautifully chipping goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar.
"Barcelona cannot settle for a draw because we always like winning, but it is true that Sporting was better than we were in many aspects (of the game)," said Villa, who began his career with Sporting.
The draw gave second-place Real Madrid the opportunity to pull within five points with its visit to Espanyol on Sunday.
Previously, the back-to-back champions had won a historic 16 straight games, outscoring their opponents 60-6 along the way.
But Sporting kept the visitors from staying perfect away from Camp Nou this season by beating them at their own game in the first half. While most teams have tried, and failed, to play behind the ball against Barcelona, Sporting relentlessly pressured up the pitch, disrupting the flow of Barcelona’s possession-based attack and looking to the pace of its forwards to mark the difference.
"Now is when we can see the value of winning 16 straight," said coach Pep Guardiola.
Elsewhere, Joaquin Sanchez scored a double to rally Valencia to a 2-1 win over Atletico Madrid.
With Barcelona’s Champions League round-of-16 visit to Arsenal looming midweek, Guardiola rested regular starters Pedro Rodriguez, Sergio Busquets and Eric Abidal, with Ibrahim Afellay, Javier Mascherano and Gabriel Milito taking their places in the starting 11.
Sporting started brightly, and Barral soon put the Catalan side behind in the score in La Liga for the first time since week seven against Valencia – a game it came back to win 2-1.
Sporting came close to doubling its lead on another counterattack near the half-hour mark. But Pique recovered in time to cut off Barral’s progress.
"We gave our lives for this draw," said Sporting coach Manuel Preciado. "Although it seems to me that against the best team in the world it should be worth more than a point."
Guardiola sent on Pedro after halftime, and Barcelona immediately began to dominate, keeping the action in Sporting’s area. Cuellar had to deny Xavi Hernandez, Lionel Messi and Dani Alves in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
Sporting held firm in defense until Villa equalized with his 15th goal of the season to split the points after Pedro tapped wide with two minutes to play.
"At the end we were able to get the draw and we have to make good on the point (we earned)," said Villa.
At Vicente Calderon Stadium, Jose Antonio Reyes put Atletico ahead in the third minute, but Joaquin equalized in the 41st, firing in a cross that striker Roberto Soldado smartly touched through to the veteran winger.
Diego Forlan wasted a chance to regain the lead for Atletico in the 57th when he hit the post with a penalty, and Joaquin scored the winner with a hard right-footed blast from the edge of the area in the 86th.
Atletico defender Diego Godin was shown a red card for making contact with Joaquin in the 90th.
Valencia’s seventh win in its last eight games moved it up to third above Villarreal, which plays Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.
Atletico’s fourth straight loss comes after a week of Spanish media reports that said coach Quique Sanchez Flores was at risk of being fired.
"If they fire me I will be paid the same, but I don’t want that," said Sanchez Flores. "I want to continue giving my all for the club and my players."
Later, Marcelino Garcia Toral took charge of Racing Santander for the first time as it hosted seventh-place Sevilla.
Also, on Sunday, it’s: Levante vs. Almeria, Malaga vs. Getafe, Hercules vs. Zaragoza, and Real Sociedad vs. Osasuna.
Athletic Bilbao looks for fifth straight in its visit to Mallorca on Monday.