MADRID (AFP) - Barcelona missed the chance to equal the best ever start to a Spanish league season as they dropped their first points of the campaign in a 0-0 draw at Osasuna.
With Lionel Messi starting the game on the bench, the visitors failed to make the most of their dominance in the first-half with Marc Bartra's wayward header their only serious effort on goal.
Neymar and Cesc Fabregas then passed up great chances to put Barca in front at the beginning of the second period before Messi was finally introduced for the final quarter.
However, even the Argentine couldn't open the door as Osasuna stood firm to prevent Barca scoring in the league for the first time since January 2012.
"We knew it would be a difficult game, this ground always is," Barca captain Carles Puyol told Canal Plus.
"We had chances, we controlled the game well, but we lacked a bit in the final pass." Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino had decided to hand a surprise start to Puyol on his return to action after seven months out due to knee surgery, but left Messi on the bench as he returned from a thigh strain.
And the visitors badly missed the World Player of the Year's magic touch in the final third before the break.
Indeed, their best chance came from a set-piece when Bartra headed over when completely unmarked from Xavi's corner in first-half stoppage time.
Neymar was inches away from finding the breakthrough nine minutes after the break as he just couldn't reach Martin Montoya's low cross on the stretch.
Fabregas then blasted over after being played in perfectly by Xavi.
With the chances beginning to arrive, Martino summoned Messi from the bench 22 minutes from time in place of Xavi.
The Argentine fired a warning shot wide with his first opening 12 minutes from time.
However, Barca failed to create another clear sight of goal and had to settle for a point which leaves them just three points ahead of Real Madrid heading into next Saturday's El Clasico at the Camp Nou.
Madrid cut the gap earlier on Saturday with a routine 2-0 win over Malaga at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Gareth Bale made his return to action for Los Blancos as a late substitute and won the penalty which Cristiano Ronaldo converted to seal the points after Angel di Maria had given Madrid the lead.
It was a much improved all round performance from Madrid, who were only denied a far more comfortable margin of victory due to a series of wonderful saves by Malaga keeper Willy Caballero.
"The game today was good, I liked the attitude of the team. We defended well, were more aggressive and compact," said Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti.
"We had opportunities to score more goals and I hope in the games to come we can maintain the same intensity."
Bale had been kept in reserve from the start due to his lack of match practice, but Ancelotti believes he will be ready to start on Wednesday in the Champions League when Juventus are the visitors to the Bernabeu.
"He could start, it is an option that we have, I don't think he will have any problems playing from the start. We will see what happens, but we have three days to make a decision."
In Karim Benzema's absence due to a calf injury, Alvaro Morata started up front and the Spanish under-21 international was highly involved in the first period.
Ronaldo saw a curling effort come off the top of the bar after just seven minutes and then ought to have opened the scoring when he skewed wide with just Caballero to beat.
The opener did finally arrive less than 60 seconds after the interval.
Ronaldo just failed to get on the end of Di Maria's cross but the ball sailed into the far corner in any case.
Ronaldo was then denied by Caballero and the Argentine produced his best save yet seconds afterwards to turn Jese Rodriguez's sweetly struck effort behind.
However, he was powerless to stop Ronaldo's perfect penalty deep into stoppage time after Bale had induced a reckless challenge from Weligton.