Moments of genius by Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi helped Real Madrid and Barcelona to narrow victories this weekend. Ronaldo scored the only goal in Real Madrid's 0-1 win at Rayo Vallecano on Sunday afternoon with a stunning back-heel, and later in the evening an impressive Messi free kick gave Barcelona a 1-2 victory at Atlético Madrid.
Real Madrid stay ten points clear of Barcelona in the table after a tight 0-1 win at neighbours Rayo Vallecano on Sunday afternoon. Rayo are proving to be one of the revelation sides this year, and they caused more than a few problems for their opponents, with Piti in particular firing a shot against the post in the first half. Before that Sergio Ramos was lucky to be let off scot free when he caught Diego Costa with a flying elbow in the penalty area, and Michu and Armenteros both went close shortly before half time. Higuaín was thwarted at the other end more by an irregular pitch than anything else, and Cristiano Ronaldo tried his luck from long range a couple of times later in the first half. Eight minutes after the restart though Ronaldo caught out Joel and his defence with an unexpected back-heel after Özil's corner came out to him, and Joel had to be at his best a few minutes later to keep out a Ronaldo free kick. In the end though Rayo were unlucky not to at least pick up a point, Casillas having to tip a long shot from Tito round the post and Armenteros missing the easiest of chances in front of goal in the last minute. And to top it all the locals were left with ten men when Michu was incorrectly shown a red card near the end for what looked like a good tackle on Khedira. The luck of champions for Mourinho's team, and the odds on them winning the league title for the first time in four years have shortened even more.
Barcelona kept their slim hopes of catching Madrid alive after a 1-2 victory at Atlético Madrid in the last match on Sunday evening. Messi got the ball in the net only to be pulled up for a hand ball early on, and Xavi tested Courtois with a free kick a few minutes later. Alexis also thought he should have had a penalty, but with ten minutes to go to the break Barça took the lead after Messi and Fàbregas combined to set up Dani Alves. Up to that point Víctor Valdés had been a mere bystander, but he had to be on his toes to save from Falcao shortly before the interval. And three minutes after the restart he could nothing when Busquets deflected a Gabi corner in to the path of the Colombian striker for him to volley in the equaliser. Soon afterwards Mascherano did well to block a shot from Filipe Luis, and Falcao was pulled up incorrectly for offside when free on goal. Alexis headed a chance wide for the visitors, but Valdés saved the day again when he came out quickly to prevent Falcao from lobbing the ball over his head and in to the net. A few minutes later Barça were awarded a free kick on the left of the area, and with the Atlético players still messing about with their defensive wall, Messi stepped up to curl a shot over Courtois in to the far top corner of the net. Valdés had to make a couple of important saves from Juanfran and Gabi after that to ensure the three points, but Messi's goal had won the day. A first defeat for Atlético under new coach Simeone, and Guardiola's side had negotiated another difficult hurdle. The problem is that Madrid are already three fences ahead of them!
The top two are now fourteen points clear of third placed Valencia after the Ches lost 1-2 to Sevilla. Unai Emery's side started well, Soldado turning Feghouli's cross just over the bar before Tino Costa opened the scoring with a shot from outside of the area which took a slight deflection off a defender. But later in the first half Medel lunged forward to head a Jesús Navas cross wide of Guaita, and with the first half coming to a close Kanouté saw his shot blocked by Mathieu with the keeper beaten. Both sides had chances after the break, Jonas unable to turn a shot at goal from wide out and Guaita saving from Reyes, but with twenty minutes to go Kanouté got ahead of the local keeper to slide a pass over for Navas to score Sevilla's second. After a gruelling programme recently of midweek Spanish and Europa cup games, Valencia had no gas left in the tank, and they end the weekend only five points ahead of fourth placed Levante. Sevilla continue their revival under new coach Michel, and although they are still only tenth, only three points separate them from the Champions League spots.
With the exception of the top and bottom three, the league table is very close this season, and there are in fact only seven points between seventeenth placed Villarreal and fifth placed Athletic Bilbao after the two teams drew 2-2 in the Madrigal stadium on Sunday lunchtime. Athletic are another team who have played a lot of games recently, and Bielsa decided to leave Llorente on the bench at the start. However after Marcos Senna had given the locals a first half lead with a well struck free kick, the coach decided at the break to bring him on. That did the trick, and after heading a first chance wide, he got on the end of Toquero's cross to beat Diego López on the far post. Four minutes later Athletic were ahead after Susaeta ran on to Ander's through ball to shoot low past the keeper, but two minutes after that Nilmar made it all square again after Iraizoz could only push out a shot from Martinucchio. Llorente could of won it for the Basque side had Diego not been at his best, but in the end a draw was a fair result.
Osasuna are level on points with Athletic and Málaga after a 2-1 victory over Granada, and only their poor goal average kept them out of the European spots. It didn't look as if they were going to win though when the visitors came at them strongly early on, Martins firing a shot against the crossbar and Andrés having to be at his best to keep out Nyom, Martins and Uche. Raúl García headed just over though for Medilibar's side, and soon afterwards Nekounam headed the locals in to the lead from a Cejudo corner. The goals came quickly after that, Lekic taking advantage of a poor clearance by Nyom to beat Roberto for a second time, and Mikel Rico smashing one back from outside of the area. Lamah could have restored the two goal cushion when he headed against the post before the break, and Ibrahima came on for the injured Lekic and had a couple of chances himself to score. But Osasuna were left a man short after Puñal was sent off for a second bookable offence, and after that they closed ranks to defend the lead.
Real Sociedad are only four points below neighbours Osasuna after beating Mallorca 1-0. An initial attack by the locals ended with Agirretxe shooting over the top, and the islanders replied with a shot wide by Tissone and a header by Pereira which Bravo turned round the post. Hemed and Carlos Vela both had penalty appeals turned down either side of half time, and Alfaro fired a long range effort over the bar after the restart. Real gradually took control though, Agirretxe shooting wide before he finally beat Aouate with ten minutes to go after good work down the left wing by Griezmann and Vela. Griezmann and Llorente went close after that, but the Basque side had done enough for three important points which take them above their opponents in the table. (26.02.12)
Levante are back up to fourth in the table after a 1-2 victory at Espanyol on Saturday evening. The Valencia based side had dropped completely out of the European spots after failing to win since the start of the new year, but they took the lead somewhat against the run of play when Valdo picked up Barkero's pass and ran through to beat Kiko Casilla midway through the first half. Alvaro Vázquez and Weiss fired shots just wide either side of half time, but Casilla had to be at his best to tip a shot from Koné over the bar, and from the resulting corner Cabral just failed to hit the target. Espanyol were dominating possession though, and with a quarter of an hour to go Kalu Uche levelled the scores with a well directed header from Verdú's free kick. That appeared to be enough to keep the Catalans a point ahead of their opponents in the table, but in the last minute a wide Rubén Suárez free kick took a deflection off Verdú and span away from Casilla in to the net.
Espanyol drop from fifth to seventh, now below Málaga, who came back from a goal down to beat bottom club Zaragoza 5-1. Manolo Jiménez's side fought bravely, and Aranda latched on to Lafita's cross to put them ahead midway through the first half. But after that it was just a matter of time before the Andalusians equalised, Roberto pulling off a couple of top class saves from Mathijsen and Isco before Seba Fernández headed in Isco's cross on the stroke of half time. The pressure continued after the break, and the locals took the lead when Da Silva deflected another Isco cross in to his own net. Substitute Demichelis headed a third from Joaquín's corner, and Isco and Rondón added two more after that to leave the Maños eleven points away from safety pending Sunday's games.
Racing Santander and Sporting Gijón stay in the other two relegation spots after they drew 1-1 earlier in the evening. The Cantabrians started the game three points above Javier Clemente's side, and only a couple of early saves by visiting keeper Juan Pablo from Stuani and Adrián Gonález prevented them from going ahead. Bernardo headed just wide of the post soon afterwards, but Barral and Rivera went close at the other end, and shortly before the interval Barral opened the scoring with an impressive shot from outside of the area following a short free kick. The chances continued in to the second half, Stuani and Gregory both heading wide, but in the end Stuani won himself a penalty which he converted to save the draw.
Betis and Getafe remain safely in mid-table after they too drew 1-1 on Saturday evening. The two teams traded shots in the first half, Fabricio saving from Miku and Gavilán and Jorge Molina having an effort blocked in reply. Moyà kept out Jefferson Montero immediately after the restart, but soon afterwards Molina picked up a Montero pass and fired a shot past the visiting keeper for the opener. The lead only lasted three minutes though before Dorado put through his own net trying to prevent Valera's cross from reaching Güiza, and Moyà did the rest with saves later on from Beñat and Rubén Castro. (25.02.12)