Barcelona bounced back in style from their heartbreaking Champions League exit with a 4-1 win at Villarreal on Saturday which put them four points clear at the top of La Liga.
If Real Madrid beat Osasuna on Sunday they will reduce the gap to one point with three more matches to go.
Villarreal striker Nilmar Honorato missed a couple of excellent chances before Barcelona, dumped out of the Champions League semi-finals by Inter Milan in midweek, asserted themselves. A deflected Lionel Messi shot put the Catalans in the lead and then a Xavi Hernandez free-kick doubled the advantage.
Bojan Krkic, playing instead of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rounded his marker before beating the keeper for Barça's third, still before half-time. Joseba Llorente pulled a goal back but Messi wrapped up the scoring with three minutes to go.
"We didn't take too long to find our rhythm and we managed a good result against a strong side," said Barca coach Pep Guardiola. "Real continue to be a strong rival and if things continue as they are it will go down to the wire."
Guardiola also praised Bojan while also expressing sympathy for Ibrahimovic who has struggled to impress in Spain since his move from Inter Milan. "I am happy with Bojan's performance and his goal, he will have a long career here. Ibrahimovic is a great player for the team and I have not been able to speak to him but it is always difficult to arrange the line-ups."
Villarreal coach Juan Carlos Garrido felt his side suffered the backlash after Barcelona's European exit. "We all saw how it affected them being eliminated and they have come here to show their football and play well, while we were unable to show our qualities in defence or attack," he said.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini believes there is still a long way to go in the championship race. "The team which is leading obviously has more chances of winning the league but from now on all the games are going to be difficult as teams are fighting for European places or against relegation," he said. "The key now is to keep playing at a high level in the games left."
Espanyol shocked at home
A brace from substitute Nicola Zigic saw Valencia beat Espanyol 2-0 and consolidate third place. Espanyol suffered their first defeat at home since last December having appeared in control of the game until Zigic struck.
After just three minutes Moises Hurtado grazed a post and then early in the second half Jose Callejon missed the target with just the keeper to beat. Valencia coach Unai Emery replaced David Villa with Zigic on the hour mark and it had almost immediate reward with the beanpole striker slotting home a Vicente Rodriguez cross. After having another goal wrongly called off-side, Zigic was on target again to ensure the victory.
Meanwhile, Getafe's Europa League hopes suffered a blow after they were held 0-0 away to relegation threatened Valladolid. The home side have discovered a new steel under coach Javier Clemente and stretched their unbeaten run in the league to five games. Valladolid could have won the match with a second-half strike from Pele which came back off the post.
Tenerife beat Racing Santander 2-1 but remain in the bottom three on goal difference after Malaga drew 1-1 with Sporting Gijon. A fine header from Roman Martinez put Tenerife in front and Ayoze Garcia added to the lead from the penalty spot before Xisco Jimenez pulled a goal back.
Meanwhile, a strike from Salvador Caicedo earned Malaga a point after an own-goal from Antonio Apono had earlier put Sporting in front. A late injury time header from Mario Bermejo saw bottom side Xerez beat Almeria 2-1 but they are still five points from safety. Emiliano Armenteros put Xerez ahead with Fernando Soriano equalising before Bermejo's late show. Deportivo la Coruna's dismal run continued as they were beaten 1-0 at home with Adrian Colunga scoring the only goal of the game.