First division, day 18

Valencia kept up the pressure on leaders Real Madrid with a 4-2 victory over East coast neighbours Villarreal. Rafa Benítez's side found themselves behind on the quarter hour mark when Riquelme beat Cañizares with a well struck free kick. But two goals in a minute from Baraja and Aimar early in the second half turned the scoreline around, and soon after Ballesteros was sent off for the visitors after kicking out at Marchena, Baraja scored his second of the night and his team's third. Belletti pulled one back though, and it was not until Mista turned in Oliveira's cross three minutes from the end that they felt safe.

The top three opened up an eight point gap over the chasing pack, as none of the teams below them managed to win. Osasuna in fact still hold on to the fourth Champions' League spot even though they have not won in their last three games, their 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao being enough to keep them ahead of Atlético Madrid on goal difference. Izquierdo gave them the lead in the first half against their Basque rivals, but Del Horno slid in the equaliser on the stroke of half time to keep his side in the challenge for the European places.

Barcelona missed a good opportunity to close up on the teams above them after losing 3-0 to Racing Santander. With several players missing, Frank Rijkaard drafted in Spanish under 20 internationals Iniesta and Sergio García into his side, but it made no difference as they fell once again at a ground where they have been beaten by some big scores in recent years. A mistake by keeper Rüstü let in Juanma to open the scoring early in the second half, and Regueiro and Javi Guerrero added two more in the last ten minutes for the final scoreline.

Málaga also wasted their chance to move into the top four after they were beaten 1-2 by a Real Sociedad side who move out of the relegation spots as a result. Litos was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty early on, but he made up for it heading home Duda's corner midway through the first half. But Karpin levelled the scores and Nihat put the visitors ahead with a direct free kick before the break to give the Basque side their first league win in ten games and take them above Celta.

A rare win too for bottom side Espanyol, their 2-0 victory over Mallorca ending their run of five defeats in a row. Tamudo was the hero for the Catalans, taking a pass from Jordi Cruyff to open the scoring with less than thirty seconds on the clock, and adding another in the second half after De la Peña put him through. Mallorca's Samuel Eto'o returned from international duty with Cameroon to play the match, but he got himself sent off near the end after picking up two bookings in succession for arguing with the referee.

Two players sent off as well for Albacete, who ended up losing 2-0 at Sevilla. Buades got his marching orders seven minutes before half time for an off the ball incident with Darío Silva, and Aranda followed him right at the end after he was shown a second yellow card for diving in the penalty area. Baptista gave the Andalucians the lead just before the break with a powerful header from a Reyes cross, and Antoñito made it two in injury time after the defence failed to cut out Martí's cross.

Sevilla's city neighbours Betis are still having trouble getting away from the lower half of the table, although they did scrape another point in a 0-0 draw at Valladolid. The home side were missing four players through suspension, including their top scorer Makukula, but they had the better chances in a lively first half, with an Oscar header against the post their best effort. Betis were unable to reply though, even when Alfonso made his reappearance in the second half after a long lay-off with a serious ankle injury. (04.01.03)

An early goal from Raúl gave leaders Real Madrid a 1-0 win over Real Murcia, keeping up their 100% home record in the league this season. The team captain beat debutant Bonano from close up after Ronaldo headed back Figo's cross for his 164th league goal, taking him level with Hugo Sánchez as Real Madrid's third top goalscorer of all time. Otherwise though Madrid struggled against a side languishing in next to bottom spot, and who have only ever taken one point from the Bernabeu stadium in all their history. Joaquín Peiró's side were unlucky in the end not to get a draw, especially when Luis García hit the bar with a free kick with a couple of minutes to go.

A humiliating 0-5 defeat for Celta at the hands of arch-rivals Deportivo La Coruña could mean the end for local manager Miguel Angel Lotina. It was a poor performance from a team in disarray, and the scoreline could have been bigger had the visitors taken their chances near the end. Luque started things off after Valerón set him up midway through the first half, and Víctor took advantage of a series of defensive mistakes to complete a hat-trick either side of half time, the third a comedy of errors after Cavallero allowed the ball to drop slowly into the net. Substitute Diego Tristán made it five near the end, and the unhappy fans called for changes.

Zaragoza and Atlético Madrid played out a dull 0-0 draw in the other game on Saturday night, a result which did little to further the ambitions of either side. Only a couple of shots from local midfielder Ponzio tested Juanma in the visiting goal, and Fernando Torres was a lonely figure up front for Gregorio Manzano's side. The point takes Atlético up to fourth spot pending Sunday's games, and keeps the home side away from the relegation zone for now. (03.01.04)

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