Bilbao draw dents Barcelona bid

Barcelona's away form continues to undermine their title bid with a 1-1 draw at struggling Athletic Bilbao on Sunday leaving them six points behind leaders Real Madrid, who also have a game in hand.

Barcelona have won just three times on their travels and they were left kicking themselves again as a late Lilian Thuram own goal cancelled out Bojan Krkic's first half opener. It was two dropped points Barcelona could not afford and Real can surge nine points clear with victory over third-placed Villarreal in Sunday's late match.

Argentine international Lionel Messi was back in the Barca starting line-up for the first time since injuring his thigh against Valencia on 15 December. Deco, who has hinted at a move away from Camp Nou, started in midfield alongside Andres Iniesta, who committed himself to the Catalan club until 2014 in midweek.

Barca had played in the Copa del Rey against Villarreal in midweek but there was no sign of fatigue and teenage prodigy Bojan put them ahead on 35 minutes. But Bilbao equalised with 11 minutes remaining to steal a point and push the league title closer to Madrid.

Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard is having a difficult period but he can take some comfort that he is not in compatriot Ronald Koeman's shoes. Koeman's three-month grip on power at Valencia looked to be slipping on Sunday as fans called for his head after the embarrassing 1-0 home defeat against unfashionable Almeria.

Valencia defeated Atletico Madrid 1-0 in their Copa del Rey quarter-final match in midweek but their league form is awful and Almeria, a region better known for its food than football, became the sixth team to win at the Mestalla this season. When Valencia sacked Quique Sanchez Flores, whose football was deemed too dull, at the end of October they were fourth in La Liga, just four points off Real Madrid at the top of the table.

Dutchman Koeman arrived with the task of pushing Valencia nearer the top with entertaining football but the team have gone backwards failing to win in nine league games and crashing to 11th in the standings.

"I am not going to run away after a few months," said Koeman. "The club is in a crisis but now is not the time to look for someone to blame. "If you lose at home you know that the coach comes in for criticism. I accept that and will continue to work hard. I am calm but concerned."

It was a day of surprises in the Spanish top-flight with UEFA Champions League contenders Athletico Madrid and Espanyol both falling to defeats.

Atletico, who rested top-scorer Kun Aguero, lost for the third time in a week with Mallorca coming out 1-0 winners thanks to a Juan Arango goal. Espanyol could have gone above Atletico into fourth but fell to a late 2-1 home defeat against Real Betis.

Alberto Rivera scored the opener for Betis on the chime of half-time but Espanyol, who have top-scorer Raul Tamudo out for two months, levelled through Spanish international Luis Garcia. However, Edu had the final say scoring the winner in the closing stages to steal three valuable points for struggling Betis.