Villarreal put the pressure on UEFA Champions League rivals Atletico Madrid and Malaga with a 2-0 home win over ten-man Athletic Bilbao. Goals from Spanish international Santi Cazorla and Mati Fernandez moved fourth-placed Villarreal five points clear of chasing Atletico and Malaga, who are in action on 22 March.
For Bilbao, who had Markel Susaeta sent off late on, it was another setback as they have failed to win in their last seven outings and are not yet safe from the drop. Turkish striker Nihat had the hosts' first opening, but his shot from an acute angle was blocked and Bilbao cleared their lines. Villarreal goalkeeper Diego Lopez, called up into the Spain squad for the first time this week, was called into action on 13 minutes producing a fine save to thwart Igor Gabilondo's deflected shot.
The breakthrough arrived in the 68th minute with Cazorla's fierce shot into the corner after Bilbao were cut open. Susaeta was sent off for a second yellow card, all but ending Bilbao's hopes of getting back in the game. Fernandez then scored in stoppage time to wrap up the win for Villarreal.
Third-placed Sevilla entertain Valladolid today looking to extend their lead over their chasing UEFA Champions League rivals. Valladolid are down in ninth, but are only four points off the final UEFA Cup spot and have already beaten Sevilla this season, along with Real Madrid, Villarreal and Valencia.
"It is a tricky game against a team that has surprised a lot of the top teams," said Sevilla coach Manolo Jimenez. "Valladolid have the ability to score goals and we need to be careful. Our stadium needs to be a fortress if we want to get the points we need [to qualify for the UEFA Champions League]."
Real Madrid take on Almeria at the Santiago Bernabeu on 22 March and are trying to put the pressure on Barcelona, six points ahead at the top, in the title race. "We cannot slip up," said goalkeeper Iker Casillas. "There are about two months left. A lot can happen, but things can also get ugly if the league is won early."
It is an emotional game for Almeria's Mexican coach Hugo Sanchez who played for Real between 1985 and 1992, winning four Pichichi crowns in the process. Barcelona host Malaga at Camp Nou on 22 March, as they continue their bid for a historic treble.
"If I had to prioritise one of them, it would be the league because it's what gives you stability and sets the tone for the team," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. "We have to focus on the next match above any other."
Guardiola has rotated his squad of late to give some of his tiring stars a rest ahead of a hectic few months with the league, Kings Cup final, and UEFA Champions League quarter-finals against Bayern Munich.