Sharp thinking and
brilliant execution by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo lifted
Barcelona and Real Madrid to wins at Atletico Madrid and Rayo
Vallecano respectively on Sunday that mantained Real's 10-point
lead over their great rivals at the top of La Liga.
Messi caught the Atletico defence napping to score with a
breathtaking 81st-minute free-kick and secure a 2-1 success for
Barca, while an audacious Ronaldo backheel gave Real a 1-0
victory against Madrid neighbours Rayo.
It was a 28th league goal of the campaign for Messi, who
succeeded Ronaldo as World Player of the Year and has won the
award three times on the trot, leaving him one behind the former
Manchester United forward at the top of the La Liga scoring
With 24 of 38 matches played, Jose Mourinho's Real have 64
points, with Pep Guardiola's Barca on 54 in second and Valencia,
who lost 2-1 at home to Sevilla on Sunday, 14 points further
back in third.
Levante, the lowly Valencia-based club who are this season's
surprise package, climbed to fourth on 35 points thanks to their
2-1 win at Espanyol on Saturday, although only eight points
separate them from Villarreal in 17th.
Messi's genius settled an intense battle at the Calderon
after Atletico's Radamel Falcao had cancelled out Daniel Alves's
As the home defence lined up to defend a free-kick wide on
the left, Messi noticed Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois out
of position and curled a stunning strike over the Belgian's head
into the far top corner.
The goal gave Barca only their fifth win in 12 games on the
road, a poor run of away form that has effectively scuppered
their bid for a fourth straight title and put Real within
touching distance of a first La Liga title since 2008.
"We know that it's very difficult, that it's a lot of
points, but we are going to keep fighting at every away game and
in every match," Guardiola told a news conference.
"At difficult moments, Messi's capacity for leadership
always shows, he's been doing it now for four years," he added.
Real's victory at Rayo's tiny stadium in the south east of
the Spanish in the earlier kick-off equalled the club record of
nine straight away wins from the 2009/10 season.
The decisive moment came when Ronaldo pounced on a loose
ball at a 54th-minute corner and with his back to goal sent it
through a crowd of players into the net.
"I didn't even think when I scored," the Portuguese told
"I just hit the ball with my heel and therefore surprised
the defenders and the goalkeeper," he added.
"I hit it strongly enough so they couldn't stop it. It gave
us the victory, so it's worth twice us much to us."
Mid-table Rayo, hosting their more illustrious neighbours
for the first time in nine years, had the best chance of the
first half when forward Piti crashed an angled shot past Iker
Casillas that hit the inside of a post and bounced along the
Real were missing winger Angel di Maria and striker Karim
Benzema, both injured, and struggled to create chances against a
resolute Rayo, who were coming into the game on a run of three
consecutive wins and were roared on by their flag-waving
They made Real suffer in the closing stages and squandered
three clear chances for an equaliser, first when Sergio Ramos
gave the ball away in a dangerous position.
It eventually fell to Michu but he skewed his shot over the
bar before Casillas was forced into a superb diving save that
stopped a thunderous long-range strike from Jose Manuel Casado.
Michu was shown a straight red card two minutes from time
for an innocuous-looking tackle from behind on Real midfielder
Sami Khedira and Rayo forward Emiliano Armenteros somehow failed
to score in the dying moments when the ball fell to him on the
line with Casillas stranded.
"It is easy to drop points at this stadium and we suffered
on a difficult pitch," Mourinho said at a news conference.
"A league title is won at every venue and in every game. A
draw would have been a just result because Rayo were fantastic,"
Athletic Bilbao missed a chance to climb above Levante into
fourth and a Champions League qualification place when they were
held to an entertaining 2-2 draw at improving Villarreal.
The home side, whose season has been wrecked by injuries to
key players, took a 10th-minute lead through former Spain
midfielder Marcos Senna before goals from Fernando Llorente and
Markel Susaeta put the Basque club ahead.
Nilmar equalised in the 68th minute to leave Villarreal in
17th on 27 points and Bilbao in fifth on 34.
Malaga, who thumped bottom side Real Zaragoza 5-1 on
Saturday, also have 34 points in sixth, level with
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