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By ESPN Staff

La Liga: Villarreal distant after Santander stalemate

MADRID, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid missed the chance to tighten their grip on a Champions League place when they surrendered an early lead to slip to a 2-1 defeat at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Third-placed Villarreal also lost ground on the leaders when they were held to a 0-0 draw at home by Racing Santander, with Italian striker Giuseppe Rossi missing the chance to secure the win when he fluffed a penalty early in the second half.

The title race has effectively boiled down to a two-way fight between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Barca closed to within five points of Real Madrid on Saturday when they scrambled a 2-1 win away to Real Zaragoza while the leaders slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Real Betis.

Real lead the standings on 56 points, Barca follow on 51 and Villarreal are now eight points further back on 43, two clear of Atletico.

Atletico went ahead at the Calderon after five minutes when an Antonio Lopez cross skidded off the greasy surface in front of Sergio Aguero and Bilbao defender Fernando Amorebieta and spun inside the far post.

Bilbao threatened little in the opening half hour but turned the tables on the home side with two sharp finishes in the closing minutes of the first period.

Midfielder Markel Susaeta scored the first, drilling home inside the post after Javi Martinez had won the ball inside his own area and charged up field through the ragged Atletico midfield.

Gangly striker Fernando Llorente made it 2-1 on the stroke of halftime when he stole in behind centre-back Pablo Ibanez to touch a Fran Yeste free kick into the net with his calf.

Atletico suffered another blow when midfielder Raul Garcia was sent off after picking up a second yellow card after the break and they never looked like getting back into the game.

Basement side Levante clinched only their fourth win of the season when they came from behind to beat Osasuna 2-1 at home but the Valencia-based side remain seven points adrift at the bottom of the table.

Recreativo Huelva also fought their way back from a goal down to clinch a 3-2 victory over Deportivo Coruna in a tense battle between two more relegation candidates, Uruguayan defender Martin Caceres heading in the winner two minutes from time.