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Sergio Ramos saves Real Madrid, Barcelona stutter without Neymar

Five thoughts from the weekend as Real Madrid just about returned to the top of the La Liga table, Barcelona missed Neymar as they lost to Deportivo, Sevilla ran out of gas and Antoine Griezmann's Atletico suddenly look like the "best of the rest" again.

1. Too many late shows from Madrid

The headlines were shared by Keylor Navas, Sergio Ramos and the referee (again) as Real Madrid beat Real Betis 2-1 on Sunday evening to move back two points clear at the top of the table, with Zinedine Zidane's side still having a game in hand on their challengers.

The real story for Madrid, however, was yet another slow start to the game -- which saw Betis deservedly in front at the Bernabeu, as another opposition team were able to counter attack quickly and pick holes in the Blancos' backline. Zidane's side have been behind in six of their last seven games in all competitions, and cannot realistically keep relying on heroics from Ramos or other circumstances to bail them out time and again.

Speaking exclusively to ESPN FC last week, Betis coach Victor Sanchez del Amo said it was clear that Madrid's "motivation" varied depending on how important their stars viewed each game, and opposition coaches could take advantage.

Better teams than Betis now lie in wait, with the Champions League quarterfinals looming, and Atletico Madrid and Barcelona both coming to the Bernabeu next month. Madrid are well placed heading into the season's deciding period, but they need to get their heads focused week in, week out.

2. No Neymar, no party for Barcelona

Neymar was the driving force behind Barcelona's amazing 6-1 Champions League comeback against Paris Saint-Germain last week, thanks to his amazing personal contribution of two goals and an assist in just 549 seconds late in the game.

But the energy used up clearly took its toll as the Brazilian missed Sunday's 2-1 defeat against Deportivo due to an apparent light adductor muscle strain.

Some in the Spanish media questioned the timing of Neymar's injury as it was the third season in a row that he has not been available to play a game on the weekend around March 11, with the last two years seeing him suspended for five yellow cards accumulated and therefore free to fly back to Brazil to attend his sister Rafaella's birthday party.

Coincidentally or not, Rafaella decided to celebrate her 21st in Barcelona this year so Neymar was in the Catalan capital watching as his team lost their first La Liga game since October, with Luis Enrique's side slipping off the top of the table.

Pepe Mel's Depor are playing very well at the moment, and it's normal for a team to suffer a dip next game out after such an emotionally and physically draining comeback midweek, while Gerard Pique even said: "Everyone connected to Barcelona would have signed up to comeback against PSG and lose to Deportivo."

But Barca's fate is now again out of their hands in the title race.

3. Sevilla running out of gas

Six times already this season in La Liga, Sevilla have come from behind to pick up all three points. But on Saturday at home to Leganes they just could not muster a comeback after Leganes' Gabriel Pires gave the visitors a shock lead just two minutes in.

Jorge Sampaoli's team did manage to equalise by half-time when Stevan Jovetic played a lovely one-two with Franco Vazquez, flicked the ball over goalkeeper Iago Herrerin, and finished beautifully.

Yet another turn-around seemed on, especially after Sampaoli's positive double-change at the break. But Leganes were actually the better team after the break, and would have won had Miguel Angel Guerrero or Darwin Machis taken relatively simple chances.

The lack of spark and energy from Sampaoli's side suggested their exertions so far this season are catching up with them. Which is unfortunate timing with a Champions League round-of-16 second leg at Leicester on Tuesday, and then a visit next Sunday to Atletico Madrid (now just five points behind them and catching up fast.)

4. Griezmann is gearing up

Antoine Griezmann's return to his best form has come just at the right time for Atletico Madrid -- with his late header in Saturday evening's 1-0 win at Granada keeping them on track for Champions League qualification next season.

Fellow strikers Kevin Gameiro and Fernando Torres were missing through injury on Saturday, and have not been showing much consistency lately even when available. Once again it was Atletico's main man who came up with the goods just when needed, getting free to head in Koke's cross with just six minutes remaining at Los Carmenes.

Following his equaliser in 1-1 draw at Deportivo La Coruna, and double strike in the home win against Valencia last weekend, Griezmann has now scored four of Atletico's five goals across their last three La Liga games. Coach Diego Simeone understandably praised his contribution when speaking on Saturday, and his hopes of ending the season on a high centre on the Frenchman keeping this run of form going.

5. Basque derby tightens European race

Athletic Bilbao's surprise 2-0 win at Real Sociedad on Sunday lunchtime was a real dent to the latter's Champions League aspirations, but tightened up the battle for the Europa League spots this year considerably.

Sociedad are now in fifth on 48 points, with Villarreal in sixth on 45 following their 1-0 win at Celta Vigo later on Sunday. Athletic themselves climbed to seventh with 44 points, and a tight struggle to the finish for fifth, sixth and seventh looks likely.

Eibar can also pull themselves right into contention should they win at bottom side Osasuna on Monday evening, while Espanyol are not out of the running completely after their highly entertaining 4-3 win at home to Las Palmas on Friday.

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan


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