A distracted Real Madrid slipped further behind their arch rivals, Barcelona, at the top of the Primera Liga when they were held to a disappointing goalless draw by a dominant Villarreal last night.
Real, who clearly had one eye on next week's decisive Champions' League game against Roma, turned in a lacklustre performance against the Mediterranean side, who had far more ideas in attack but lacked the firepower to finish off their opponents.
Michael Owen rarely received the ball in any space and had few opportunities to add to his tally of five league goals this season, while David Beckham had a quiet game and was replaced by the youngster Javi Garcia midway through the second half.
Madrid's coach, Mariano Garcia Remon, decided to leave his French playmaker, Zinedine Zidane, in Madrid to recover from a back injury, and he gave Raul and Roberto Carlos a spell on the bench. The midfielders Guti and Luis Figo were missing because of suspended, after picking up bookings in last Sunday's 5-0 league win over Levante.
The selection changes meant that the England colleagues Owen and Beckham lined up alongside each other in the starting 11 for the first time in the league this season. Beckham reverted to his old Manchester United slot on the right wing in the absence of Figo and Owen played up front alongside Ronaldo.
Beckham swung in a couple of crosses towards Owen in the opening minutes, but the Villarreal defence had little problem dealing with them and it was the home side who dominated the early exchanges.
A busy Owen was the first player to show for a muted Real and he set up Ronaldo with a great chance midway through the half when he darted his way into the area, cut inside two defenders and cleverly dinked the ball towards his unmarked partner. But the usually reliable Brazilian wasted the opportunity when he took too long over his shot and allowed the defence to close him down.
Although it was Villarreal who held the initiative for most of the half, it was Real who went closest to scoring when Beckham hit the top of the bar after curling a 20-yard free-kick over the wall in the 30th minute.
With the former Barcelona and Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme orchestrating affairs in their midfield, Villarreal put together some impressively slick approach play but never really managed to create any clear scoring chances before the break.
The home side continued to dominate in the second half as Real, and particularly Ronaldo, appeared to run out of ideas. Real's Spanish international goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, came to his side's rescue when he pulled off a fine reflex save to block a sharp volley by the Villarreal midfielder Santi Cazorla in the 70th minute and the Argentine striker Luciano Figueroa, who failed to settle in the Premiership when at Birmingham City, had the ball in the net 11 minutes from time but the goal was disallowed for a borderline offside.
With Barcelona notching up an almost effortless 4-0 win over a sorry-looking Malaga at the Nou Camp on Saturday, Real are now nine points behind their arch-rivals in the standings and unless the Catalans self-destruct, their chances of mounting a challenge for the league title now look remote.
Villarreal (4-4-2): Reina; Venta, Rodriguez, Alvarez, Arruabarrena; Cazorla (Font, 74), Riquelme, Josico, Sorin; Guayre (Forlan, 67), Figueroa.
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Casillas; Salgado, Pavon, Samuel, Bravo; Beckham (Garcia, 65), Celades, Helguera, Solari (Mejia, 83); Owen, Ronaldo (Morientes, 65).
Referee: M Mejuto Gonzalez.
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