Argentine Gonzalo Higuain scored a 20-minute hat-trick as he and Real Madrid buried their painful Champions League last 16 exit with a resounding 4-1 win at Valladolid on Sunday to nudge Barcelona off the summit on goal difference.
It was the day of Argentine hat-tricks with Lionel Messi scoring a sublime treble earlier on Sunday as Barcelona beat 10-man Valencia 3-0 to go level on 65 points with Real, but only below on goal difference.
Higuain inexplicably missed an open goal against Lyon in his team's midweek Champions League exit, hitting the post rather than the back of the net. But he put it out of his system with a treble against Valladolid to take his season's tally to 19. Cristiano Ronaldo was also on target with a free-kick as he scored for the fifth successive game to make it 15 goals in 17 league outings.
"I am delighted for Higuain and the club as we needed to win tonight," said Real coach Manuel Pellegrini. "The Champions League was a big setback and we knew it would be difficult here as Valladolid are fighting relegation. The league is close and we have to give it our all as it is the only trophy we can win now."
Messi is on 22 goals for the season and Argentina coach Diego Maradona must be delighted with his and Higuain's form ahead of this summer's World Cup. "It was difficult for us in the first half but in the second half we showed our character and Messi showed he is the best player in the world," said Barcelona team-mate Gerard Pique. "Real won't drop many points and we have to go to win every game. If we lose points we will go to the Bernabeu (to face Real) without options."
Ronaldo rifled in a trademark free-kick on 28 minutes to open the Real scoring although it did take a slight deflection. Higuain then took centre stage scoring three times in 20 minutes as Valladolid felt the Real backlash.
Brazilian Kaka, furious at being substituted against Lyon, was absent through injury but Xabi Alonso and Marcelo returned after being suspended in Europe. Valladolid had an early penalty claim turned down to leave Sergio Ramos breathing a huge sigh of relief. Ramos should have scored on 22 minutes but his header and follow-up shot were well-saved.
Ronaldo to the rescue
Predictably it was Ronaldo, on target against Lyon on Wednesday, who opened the scoring, firing in a free-kick on 28 minutes although it took a slight deflection off Diego Costa. Iker Casillas made a fine save to stop a dipping free-kick from Portuguese midfielder Pele and Real took control from there on.
Higuain guided in a Rafael van der Vaart cross for his opener on half-time and some poor defending allowed him to strike again on 52 minutes before wrapping up his treble in the 65th minute after a Raul Albiol own goal had given Valladolid some hope.
Compatriot Messi was also on top of his game scoring a brilliant opener for Barcelona on 56 minutes combining speed, dribbling and trickery as the 22-year-old led three Valencia defenders a merry dance before slotting home.
With Valencia down to 10 men after the dismissal of defender Hedwiges Maduro on 69 minutes, Messi ran riot scoring an 81st minute left-footed curler and a deft chipped effort with his right foot a minute later.
Barca are still in the Champions League and face VfB Stuttgart in the Champions League last 16 second leg at Camp Nou on Wednesday with the score at 1-1 from the first leg. For third-placed Valencia, who had to do without star striker David Villa, this was a fifth defeat of the season and they lie 18 points behind Barcelona and Real.
Earlier Villarreal closed to within six points of the top six enhancing their hopes of qualifying for the Europa League with a 2-0 home win over Xerez at El Madrigal on Saturday. Villarreal had been Xerez's first ever La Liga scalp when they lost 2-1 last October but there was no repeat on Sunday as goals from Joseba Llorente (32 min) and Damian Escudero (90) secured victory.