Real Madrid’s hopes of a first La Liga title since 2012 took a huge blow as Malaga held out for a deserved 1-1 draw at La Rosaleda on Sunday.
Varane’s one-game ban for his red card in Madrid’s 4-2 win against Athletic Bilbao last weekend, plus Benzema’s sudden hip injury, saw Nacho Fernandez come into central defence, with Pepe still absent, and Cristiano Ronaldo move into the middle of attack.
Isco’s inclusion on the left wing also meant James Rodriguez was dropped to the substitutes’ bench as Zinedine Zidane continued his policy of playing one or the other, while Recio returned for Malaga and Ricardo Horta was preferred to Pablo Fornals.
Aware only a win would keep their flagging title hopes alive, with Barcelona having moved 10 points clear on Saturday, Madrid began the game nervously and had Keylor Navas to thank after he salvaged two poor backpasses from Sergio Ramos.
Duje Cop and Charles’ link-up play particularly caught the eye, but the Croatian could only blaze a shot over from outside the box, while his striker partner lacked the composure to take aim first time in the Madrid box, his rabona cross instead being blocked.
Juanpi came into the game with three goals in his last four games, but he looked bereft of confidence in scoring positions as he latched onto Toni Kroos’ awful backpass and could only scuff a shot straight at Navas, before a totally-unmarked Horta wrongly took a touch at the back post as he drove his free effort wide of the target.
Inevitably, Malaga’s failure to find the back of the net was the cue for Madrid’s opener, although Ronaldo should’ve been flagged offside when he guided Kroos’ free kick from the right into the bottom-left corner of Carlos Kameni’s net with his head.
The Andalucians were understandably unhappy with the decision to permit Ronaldo’s header, and their frustrations took another sharp turn when the Portuguese was tripped by Weligton’s outstretched leg in the box, but the No 7 failed to make it 16 penalties out of 16 as his inaccurate finish to the bottom right was pushed away by Kameni.
Chances were not as frequent after the break, but the introduction of Pablo Fornals – a day before his 20th birthday – injected new life into Malaga as his mazy dribble and shot won a corner, which resulted in Weligton pulling the ball back to his centre-back partner Raul Albentosa for a powerful, side-footed finish into the roof of Navas’ net.
Madrid enjoyed the majority of possession, but with no identity or purpose to their play, Malaga continued to attack at will, and they should have secured all three points when Charles met a cross from the left, profited from Nacho’s woeful marking and sent a looping header on target, which Navas had to tip over.
The result was only the sixth time in 20 meetings Los Periquitos had avoided defeat to the capital giants in the modern era as Zidane’s men fell nine points behind Barca in the title race.
Malaga 1-1 Real Madrid
Albentosa 66 (M) Ronaldo 33 (RM)
Malaga: Kameni; Rosales, Albentosa, Weligton, Torres; Juanpi (Duda 89), Recio, Camacho, Horta (Pablo 63); Charles, Cop (Santa Cruz 81)
Real Madrid: Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Nacho, Marcelo; Kroos, Modric, Kovacic; Jese (Vazquez 61), Ronaldo, Isco (James 75)
Referee: Iglesias Villanueva