Zidane, meanwhile, seemed lost for explanation after Villarreal beat his men 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
Fornals struck with three minutes left to leave Zinedine Zidane’s wasteful side fourth and nearly certainly leaves the defending champions out of the title race.
Real are now in fourth spot on 32 points, eight points behind Valencia and 10 points behind, while Villarreal moved up to fifth place on 31 points.
Atletico survived a stoppage-time scare when Augusto Fernandez handled the ball during a goalmouth scramble but went unpunished by the referee.
Villarreal had gone into the Bernabeu and came out winners, jumping up to fifth place in La Liga, a point behind Real Madrid (at least for the moment). We must keep working hard and win some games.
“This wasn’t about a lack of focus, the ball just didn’t want to go in”, Carvajal told reporters.
That’s left Cristiano Ronaldo fearing for his future at the club given his meagre four league goals this season.
“I have the feeling that we are a very hard team to beat”, coach Ernesto Valverde said after Sunday’s 4-2 come-from-behind win at Real Sociedad’s Anoeta Stadium, where hadn’t won since 2007. It’s tough for the players, they gave their best. “This is a bad spell, nothing more”.
Lower league sides Fuenlabrada and Numancia have both escaped the Bernabeu with draws – each scoring twice – and things are going from bad to worse.
Catching Barcelona at the top of La Liga was already a pipe dream, but despite a markedly improved performance, Real couldn’t find a way past the inspired Sergio Asenjo before Pablo Fornals produced a sucker punch for Villarreal two minutes from time.
“We had chances to score but in the end… we couldn’t avoid the counter and… it’s just very f****** up for all the players”.
Keylor Navas did well to save the first attempt but Fornals placed the rebound just over the outstretched fingertips of the Costa Rican keeper. The opening stages will be crucial in determining the mood – an early goal would be welcome reassurance that redemption is possible, but a slow start could get nerves jangling…and see Zidane pushed further towards the precipice.