First division, week 35

Valencia took a big step closer to a second league title in three years after beating Betis 2-0. Real Madrid's defeat the day before means that Rafa Benítez's side are now four points clear at the top with three games to play, and they also have a better head-to-head record over their rivals. The manager put out a full strength side despite an important UEFA cup semi-final next Thursday, and they took the lead seven minutes before half time when Curro Torres picked up Baraja's pass to beat keeper Toni Prats. Baraja himself got the second three minutes after the restart following a pass from half time substitute Aimar, who was returning from injury.

If Valencia do falter in their remaining matches they may face a bigger threat from Barcelona than from Real Madrid. The Catalans moved to within a point of Carlos Queiroz's side after thrashing city rivals Espanyol 4-1, their seventeenth league game in a row without defeat. The visitors actually took the lead with a Tamudo penalty early on, but a superb Ronaldinho headed an equaliser and then set up Saviola for a second goal before the break. Van Bronckhorst and Saviola added two more in the second half to stop their opponents from climbing out of the drop zone.

All four Champions' League spots were decided this weekend, but the two UEFA cup places are still up for grabs, with seven sides all in with a chance. Athletic Bilbao were clear favourites for one of the berths, but their 2-0 defeat at the hands of Sevilla leaves things wide open again. Both goals came from Julio Baptista, the second from the penalty spot, making it seven now for the Brazilian midfielder in three games. The Andalucians move up to seventh as a result.

Villarreal are also in the hunt, and like their UEFA cup semi-final opponents Valencia, their manager Paquito decided not to rest players for their visit to Real Sociedad. José Marí twice put them in front, but each time they were pegged back, with Schürrer and then Gabilondo getting the goals in a 2-2 draw. The result means that the Basque side still have some work to do to avoid relegation, although they should be safe for another year.

The relegation picture was a little clearer after the latest round of games, with victories for Racing, Albacete and Mallorca taking all three into a fairly safe position. Racing came from behind to beat Osasuna 1-2 thanks to a last minute goal from late substitute Afek. Puñal had given the Pamplona based side the lead from the penalty spot, but a Cristian Alvarez free kick had levelled the scores before Afek's late strike. It was a third defeat in a row for Javier Aguirre's side, and they drop out of the UEFA cup spots down to eighth place.

Albacete are looking set for another season in the top flight after a 3-1 win over Zaragoza, who themselves are now only two points above the bottom three. Aranda opened the scoring for them with only two minutes on the clock and Pacheco got a second after the break, and although Rebosio pulled one back, Mikel finished things off near the end.

Mallorca also moved five points clear of the relegation spots after a 2-1 victory over Málaga, leaving the South coast side down in tenth position. Samuel Eto'o celebrated his award as the African footballer of the year by scoring a goal in each half, albeit the first from a possible offside position, with Salva getting one for the visitors in between from Duda's cross.

Valladolid are still struggling though, and a 2-1 loss against bottom club Real Murcia left them just above the bottom three thanks to a better goal difference than Espanyol. Caretaker manager Antonio Sánchez Santos saw his side take the lead through Jonathan on the half hour mark, but Acciari made it all square two minutes later and Luis García struck the winner two minutes from the end. (02.05.04)

A depleted Deportivo La Coruña side beat Real Madrid 2-0, a result which could cost Carlos Queiroz's side the league championship. With one eye on next Tuesday's Champions' League semi-final, Javier Irureta put out a starting line up which contained only three of the players expected to start that match. But the reserves put up a good show, and although Cambiasso hit the post early on, Diego Tristán gave the locals the lead on the half hour mark after Casillas could only parry a strong shot from Sergio. Ronaldo and Raúl both hit the woodwork later in the half, but three minutes before the break the visitors were reduced to ten men when Zidane picked up a second yellow card. For a few minutes after the restart Madrid kept up the attack, but Depor struck again with twenty minutes to go, Capdevila firing a vicious shot past Casillas following a set piece free kick to wrap things up.

Atlético Madrid got their European campaign back on track at the expense of Celta after beating the Galicians 3-2. Gregorio Manzano's side were two goals up after only five minutes, Nano volleying home Paunovic's cross with seconds on the clock and Fernando Torres getting the second after a free kick was blocked. Milosevic headed one back from Angel's free kick on the half hour mark, but García Calvo restored the two goal advantage before half time, again after the defence failed to clear a free kick. The visitors came out strongly after the break though, hitting the woodwork three times in the first quarter of an hour, and Edu beat Juanma soon afterwards to close the gap once more. But after Berizzo was sent off their challenge ended, and they sink further into the relegation zone as a result. (01.05.04)

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