Barcelona, Jan 31: Thibaut Courtois’ impressive penalty save was not enough to keep an error-prone Real Madrid from stumbling again in its Spanish league title defense.

Madrid lost 2-1 at home to Levante on Saturday in a match that the defending champions played with 10 men from the eighth minute when defender Eder Militao was sent off.

With the score level at 1-1 in the second half, Courtois stopped Roger Marti’s penalty. The loud smack that the impact of the ball made when Courtois repelled it with one hand could be heard across Madrid’s Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, which like all stadiums in Spain is devoid of fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Courtois could not deny Marti in the 78th minute when the forward received a pass after a smart team move executed after a corner kick and rifled the ball home.

“We got a red card in the eighth minute, that made it all much more complicated,” Courtois said.

Second-placed Madrid’s first loss in 10 rounds left them seven points adrift of front-runner Atletico Madrid, which have two more games still to play. Atletico will take a seven-round winning streak to Cadiz next.

Militao, starting in place of the injured Sergio Ramos, left his side a man down when he fouled Sergio Leon from behind on a counterattack with only the goalkeeper to beat.

The referee initially awarded a yellow card but changed it for a red after consulting a video replay.

Despite losing a player, Marco Asensio put Madrid ahead in the 13th minute when he was launched on a counterattack with Toni Kroos’ excellent pass.

But Levante imposed their numerical advantage the rest of the way and enjoyed all the clear scoring chances.

Levante forward Jose Morales equalised in the 33rd minute with an exquisite volley to blast a pass from Jorge Miramon inside the far post.

Tasked with boosting Madrid’s attack, substitute Vinicius Junior instead fouled Charles Leclerc near the edge of the box in the 64th minute. That led to Marti’s spot kick saved by Courtois.

Madrid’s defense was caught off guard for Marti’s goal when the team allowed Levante to work an intricate set piece to set up his winner.

Assistant coach David Bettoni was in the dugout for a second straight match for Madrid as Zinedine Zidane continued his self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.

“It is a difficult loss. After the sending off, the game was uphill for us,” Bettoni said.

Madrid enjoyed a strong December when they reeled off five straight wins. But Zidane’s team has dropped points in three of its last five league matches in addition to losing to Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup semifinals and being dumped from the Copa del Rey by third-tier Alcoyano.

Levante rose to ninth after just their second win on the road this season.

SEVILLA THIRD: Sevilla eased to a 2-0 win at Eibar to move ahead of Barcelona and into third place – one point behind Madrid. Lucas Ocampos opened for the visitors in the 28th minute from the penalty spot after Pedro Bigas fouled Youssef En-Nesyri. – AP