VILA-REAL, SPAIN (REUTERS) - Real Madrid endured a frustrating start to the new year as they drew 2-2 at struggling Villarreal on Thursday (Jan 3) and were left seven points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona.
Midfielder Santi Cazorla gave the home side the lead in the fourth minute of the game, which was rescheduled due to Real's participation in last month's Club World Cup, by bending a wonderful shot into the bottom corner.
But the European champions struck back three minutes later with a headed goal from Karim Benzema after a sweeping attacking move.
Raphael Varane gave the visitors the lead in the 20th with a header from a free kick but it was former Arsenal midfielder Cazorla, who has overcome a terrible run of injuries to resurrect his career in Spain, who had the final say.
The diminutive 34-year-old Spaniard ghosted into the box undetected to nod home at the back post in the 82nd minute and give his side a deserved point in new coach Luis Garcia Plaza's first home game in charge.
Real have not won their opening away game of a new year since 2014, and Cazorla's late strike prevented them from going level on points with Sevilla and kept them in fourth place, seven behind leaders Barcelona after 17 games.
Apart from conceding the early goal, Real produced an impressive display in the first half but lost their grip on the game after Gareth Bale was substituted soon after the interval with a knock.
Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric, who helped set up the equaliser, followed Bale off the pitch midway through the second half and Villarreal, spurred on by their supporters, showed more intensity and wrestled back control of the play.
Cazorla's leveller followed a spell of pressure from the home side but Real could still have snatched a winner when substitute Isco burst into the area but was denied by Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo.
"It could be said the result was fair, we chased the victory and had it in our hands, we wanted to kill the game off and they put us under a lot of pressure as they were at home and they badly needed the points," Real coach Santiago Solari said.
"When Gareth came off we lost a bit of sharpness in attack, we still had the chance to score a couple but we needed to attack with more clarity." Villarreal, who have reached the last 32 of the Europa League despite a dire domestic season, clawed their way out of the relegation zone to 17th in the standings, level on points with 18th-placed Athletic Bilbao.
"This result will give us strength," said Villarreal coach Garcia, who has taken two points from two games since succeeding the sacked Javi Calleja.
"I imagine that every game from now on will be a battle, a war to survive but hopefully we'll come through it, and this point gives us a big emotional boost."