Real Madrid's fading title hopes were handed what could have been a knock-out blow Saturday after the stuttering champion slumped to a 3-2 defeat at Malaga to fall 16 points behind La Liga leader Barcelona.
Substitute Roque Santa Cruz struck twice in three second-half minutes to help fourth-placed Malaga heap the pressure on Madrid coach Jose Mourinho, who created a surprise by omitting captain Iker Casillas from his starting lineup.
Madrid dominated the first half but was unable to turn their possession into goals and was made to pay as Isco put Malaga ahead in the 48th minute.
Karim Benzema drew Madrid level midway through the second half but Santa Cruz, who had been on the pitch less than 10 minutes, stunned the visitors by putting Malaga 3-1 ahead with a double strike in the 73rd and 76th minutes.
Benzema pulled another goal back with eight minutes remaining, but Madrid could not find an equalizer as it slumped to a fourth league defeat of the season -- twice as many as it suffered in winning the title last season.
"The difference with the leader is insurmountable," Mourinho said.
Even though Mourinho said last week it was "almost impossible" for his side to catch Barca following Madrid's disappointing home draw with Espanyol, the champions would not have wanted to give their title up without a fight.
And despite Barca moving further clear with a 3-1 win at Real Valladolid earlier Saturday, Madrid looked in a determined mood during the first half at La Rosaleda.
The unexpected omission of Casillas caused a stir before kickoff but his replacement Antonio Adan had little to do in the opening period as Madrid dominated.
Cristiano Ronaldo saw his early dipping swerving free kick well saved by Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero before the Portugal international spurned a great chance in the 24th minute when he sliced an Angel Di Maria cross wide at the far post.
Di Maria then failed to make the most of a fine pass from Ronaldo as his lob over Caballero lacked pace and was cleared by a covering defender while Pepe saw a powerful header fly straight into the hands of Caballero as the first half finished goalless.
Madrid was soon made to rue not making the most of its first-half possession as Malaga took the lead just three minutes into the second half when Isco found the bottom corner of the net from the edge of the box.
That sparked a strong stretch for Malaga which could have seen it put Madrid out of the contest.
Madrid weathered the storm, though, and was soon piling men forward in search of an equalizer with Benzema shooting wide and Ronaldo being denied by a crucial Martin Demichelis tackle.
Mourinho's men got back on terms in the 66th minute thanks to a stroke of good fortune when Benzema fired the ball into the foot of Sanchez eight yards out and saw it roll past Caballero.
That would have come as a big relief to the champions, but they were not on level terms for long as Manuel Pellegrini's Malaga restored their lead seven minutes later.
Adan blocked Joaquin's clever back-heel at the front post but the loose ball ran across the face of goal and Santa Cruz raced in to slam his shot into the unguarded net.
The Paraguay international was not finished there, either, and he made it 3-1 after latching onto a Joaquin pass and firing a first-time shot past Adan at his near post.
That left Madrid with too much to do and although Benzema volleyed in Ozil's low cross to reduce the deficit in the 82nd minute, the visitors were left nursing another defeat and the increasing realization the title looks to be heading back to the Nou Camp.
Real Madrid is 16 points back for the first time since Dec. 19, 1999, according to STATS LLC.
"Fear for my job?" Mourinho said. "I have never feared for my job."
Information from Press Association and Associated Press was used in this report.