Barcelona opened up a three-point lead at the top of the Spanish first division with Lionel Messi's seventh goal of the season and a late strike from substitute Seydou Keita sealing a 2-0 win over Recreativo Huelva on Sunday. A cunning training ground free-kick provided the breakthrough with Argentine Messi peeling off the wall to fire a fierce shot home on 51 minutes before Keita scored minutes after coming on.
It was a ninth successive league win for Barca who had a great weekend with all their title rivals dropping points. Villarreal drew 2-2 with Malaga on Sunday and now sit three points behind the leaders while Real Madrid and Valencia are five points back after tasting defeats on Saturday.
Real lost 1-0 at Valladolid while Sporting Gijon overcame Valencia 3-2 at the Mestalla. Barca wanted to take advantage of the slips but found Huelva a tough nut to crack. Samuel Eto'o had bagged four goals in his last match but endured a frustrating first half with a vital late block and a brilliant save from Recre goalkeeper Asier Riesgo denying him his 14th goal of the campaign.
Riesgo had himself a blinder with some fine stops to thwart Eto'o and Thierry Henry who missed a sitter. But a great 51st minute set-piece from the training ground opened the hosts up with Xavi Hernandez lining up a shot before passing to Messi, who had spun off the wall, and the Argentine hammered a shot into the roof of the net.
On 85 minutes Keita, who had only been on the pitch eight minutes, added a second from close range after Eto'o screwed his shot.
Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini was understandably disappointed at dropping two points in the title race as Malaga scored a 90th minute equaliser to snatch a 2-2 draw on Sunday. The so-called Yellow Submarine looked set for victory holding a 2-1 lead going into the dying moments of the match but Portuguese defender Helder equalised in the final minute.
"We scored two good goals and had opportunities to finish the game but in the end we dropped two points," said Pellegrini. "I wouldn't say Malaga surprised us because we already knew how they played."
After exiting the Spanish Cup to minnows Polideportivo Ejido in midweek, Villarreal wanted to respond and looked set to do just that. Giuseppe Rossi, who scored in the first minute in Villarreal's last match, struck on seven minutes and Jose Llorente restored their lead four minutes after the break after Sergio Duda had replied for Malaga.
But Helder levelled for Malaga and while Villarreal stretch their unbeaten league run to 17 games - with their last league defeat coming back in April - the two points dropped are a blow.
Champions Real are having a tough time of things with the 1-0 defeat against Valladolid on Saturday the latest setback as speculation mounts that German coach Bernd Schuster could be axed. "It is a difficult time at the moment but we had a similar situation last season and I am sure we will come out of it," explained Schuster.
The woes of Real will delight Atletico Madrid fans and their team also gave them something to shout about with a convincing 4-1 win over Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.
Diego Forlan scored twice to help Atletico up to sixth although they are still five points behind Sevilla who also won. "The fans should be happy because the team turned in a good performance," said Atletico manager Javier Aguirre. "I hope we continue our ascent and fight for the spots higher up the table."
Sevilla defeated Getafe 2-0 to move level on 23 points with Real and Valencia. "The points mean we can aspire to be among the big teams," declared Sevilla coach Manolo Jimenez. "We consider ourselves one of those big teams."