Real Madrid failed to win a third consecutive competitive fixture for the first time this season, after they were held to a 0-0 La Liga draw away at Real Betis and saw several match-winning opportunities pass them by on a frustrating night in Andalusia.
After a narrow 1-0 Copa Del Rey semi-final first-leg defeat to eternal rivals Barcelona in midweek, Real sorely needed a victory to keep up with the league leaders.
Betis had the first opportunity of the match, as Ayoze Pérez stung Thibaut Courtois’ right palm from distance, but it was the visitors who apparently took the lead shortly before the 15-minute mark.
At first glance, Benzema’s free-kick from just outside the penalty appeared to be a stunning effort into the top corner, but a VAR review showed the ball had deflected off Antonio Rüdiger’s hand en-route to goal.
With the scoresheet subsequently unchanged, the rest of the opening period provided little in the way of clear-cut opportunities, although Federico Valverde went close with a long-range drive.
In the absence of the highly-instrumental Nabil Fekir, who picked up a season-ending injury in the victory over Elche last week, the Verdiblancos struggled to find a final killer pass despite working themselves into some promising positions all the way up to HT.
Not long into the second half, each side had a fantastic chance to break the deadlock.
The first of these gilt-edged chances fell to Benzema inside the area – but against the high expectations provoked by his incredible form over the past 18 months, he was unable to beat Bravo, who produced a marvellous diving stop to keep his clean sheet intact.
Down at the other end, it was Courtois’ turn to be the hero shortly after that save, making himself big to thwart Betis’ top goalscorer Borja Iglesias.
The forward was almost made to rue that wasted opening when Rodrygo was found in space in the opposite box, but his first-time flick flew over the bar to audible groans from the travelling swathes of white in the Estadio Benito Villamarín’s away section.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side only grew in dominance as the half progressed, but a combination of poor end product and a determined backline ultimately prevented them from picking up what would have been a valuable three points.
Following Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Valencia earlier on Sunday, Real now trail the Blaugrana by nine points.
For most fans of the Blancos, that means their title defence hangs by a thread, with an ever-present sense that the title will be Barcelona’s to lose now.
Unlike the Catalonians, however, Real still have a shot at a record-extending 15th Champions League trophy, especially after their 5-2 last-16 victory over Liverpool at Anfield – a ground that today witnessed titans Manchester United thumped 7-0 to put Real’s achievement into perspective.