Late goals from Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi helped Barcelona defeat Real Madrid 2-0 in 'El Clasico' at a rain-soaked Camp Nou on Saturday to move 12 points clear of their arch rivals in the title race.
Former Real old boy Eto'o had seen Iker Casillas save his penalty on 70 minutes but picked himself up to break the deadlock seven minutes from time and Messi produced a delicate chip in stoppage time to spark wild celebrations. It was Barca's first win over Real since November 2005 and was sweet revenge for last season when Real did a league double and Barca had to perform the guard of honour to salute Real as champions at the Santiago Bernabeu before losing 4-1.
"The 12 point cushion over Real is obviously nice, however, we are not just competing against Real," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. "There are other teams up there like Villarreal, Valencia and Sevilla who are all dangerous. I said it would be difficult against Real and that we wouldn't be scoring goals at will. They are the reigning champions and a great side. We really wanted to win this match and kept on going to the final whistle and the goals finally came."
For new Real Madrid coach Juande Ramos, who took over from Bernd Schuster four days ago, it was a bitter pill to swallow and the former Tottenham Hotspur manager has a mammoth task to help Real win a third consecutive title. It is a complete turnaround from last season when Real opened up a seven-point cushion with a 1-0 victory at Camp Nou before strolling to the title.
"It is certainly difficult to take," said Real captain Raul. "We had chances but then conceded two late goals and have to take it on the chin. "We are not giving up (in the title race) as it is a long season and there are lots of points to play for. We have to absorb this defeat and carry on."
Wesley Sneijder was passed fit for the match as Ramos shuffled an injury-plagued Real side who also had their left side weakened through the suspensions of Arjen Robben and Marcelo. Sergio Ramos was asked to play at left back - possibly to try to counter Messi. Guardiola, who saw his team destroy Valencia 4-0 last time out, had no major injury worries and the three-pronged attack of Eto'o, Messi and Thierry Henry was employed to test the makeshift Real backline.
A new coach often breathes new life into a team and Real were snapping at Barca early on but the hosts were on the front foot and Messi turned Ramos inside out and his right-footed shot forced a save from Casillas. Messi was coming in for some rough treatment and compatriot Fernando Gago trampled on his troublesome ankle to enrage the player and Guardiola. Although Barcelona controlled proceedings it was Real who had the best chance of the first half through Roysten Drenthe on 25 minutes.
Dani Alves sold his goalkeeper short with a prodded backpass but Drenthe lacked composure and Victor Valdes guessed correctly to save his side. Sneijder was forced off injured after 35 minutes and 20-year-old Miguel Palanca came on for an unforgettable debut.
On 70 minutes Barca thought they had their breakthrough when Michel Salgado blocked Sergi Busquets and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. However, Casillas went the right way to save Eto'o's spot-kick and denied him again a minute later with a fantastic save.
Eto'o sucked up the blow and showed a real predator instinct to get a slight touch to prod the ball in after Carles Puyol kept a corner alive. Messi then rubbed salt in their wounds with a 91st minute chip.
Barcelona play Villarreal next weekend while Real entertain Valencia praying for the Christmas break.
Valencia got their title bid back on track coming from behind to defeat ten-man Espanyol 2-1 at home on Saturday as they moved up to second in the table eight points behind Barcelona. Substitute Vicente struck an 81st-minute winner for the hosts after Raul Albiol had cancelled out Roman Martinez's opener for the visitors.
Valencia old boy Francisco Rufete, who won two league titles as a Valencia player in 2002 and 2004, had a nightmare return to the Mestalla stadium getting his marching orders shortly before half-time for a deliberate handball. Valencia had been crushed 4-0 by Barcelona last weekend so the win was much-needed and another boost was the return of Spanish international Daniel Silva after three months out following ankle surgery.
Villarreal are nine points behind Barca in third and travel to fourth-placed Sevilla, just two points behind them, on Sunday.