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Atletico Madrid put up a ferocious fight at the Vicente Calderon, but Barcelona emerged triumphant regardless. It was a brutal match, featuring thirteen bookings, and Atletico probably didn't deserve to lose, but a wonderful free kick by Lionel Messi in the 81st minute broke a 1-1 deadlock, and the visitors were able to hold on despite a flurry of Atleti attacks in the closing stages.
Things looked bright for Barca when Messi had the ball in the back of the net eight minutes in, taking advantage of some phenomenal work from Alexis Sanchez to power into the heart of the box and dink delightfully over Thibaut Courtois only to see his effort disallowed due to a handball call. To add insult to injury, referee Miguel Perez Lasa showed the star a yellow card for his infraction.
The visitors came close again when Courtois just about kept out Xavi's vicious free kick, but Barcelona were not to be denied. Dani Alves opened the scoring in the 36th minute, taking advantage of Cesc Fabregas' excellent run and pass to tap in from close range.
The first half ended in fairly sour fashion when Fabregas, apparently taking offence to an earlier challenge, wiped out Francisco Jaunfran as the right back was shielding the ball near the corner flag. It was an appalling tackle, coming in from behind against a helpless standing opponent, and Fabregas probably should have walked for it. Instead, he saw yellow, and life went on.
Atletico were lively after the restart and soon leveled thanks to Radamel Falcao, who took advantage of mistakes by Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets to volley past Victor Valdes and make it 1-1. The hosts gave as good as they got in the second half, with Falcao nearly scoring again and the likes of Adrian and Arda Turan causing problems for the Barcelona back line.
However, the visitors were threatening plenty themselves. They were disappointed to have a second goal disallowed for handball, this time by Alexis Sanchez (he also received a booking for his troubles), but eventually they'd pull ahead again, with Lionel Messi lashing home a free kick while Atletico were still setting up their wall. It was a peach of a strike, straight into the top corner from a tight angle and Courtois would have been hard pressed to save it had he been in position, which, of course, he wasn't.
Atletico didn't deserve to be down and Valdes was forced to make another fine save as the home side pushed for the equaliser, denying Gabi after the midfielder's fierce volley looked destined for the bottom corner, but despite their best efforts, they slumped to their first loss under new manager Diego Simeone. Pep Guardiola's men remain ten points behind Real Madrid in the title race, but that's a better than twelve, and Barcelona will take it.
Well, Barcelona always score. It's kind of what they do. Dani Alves has given the visitors the lead at the Vicente Calderon, capping off an absolutely lovely move in which Barca ripped the Atletico Madrid defence to pieces. Cesc Fabregas drew the defence to the left before slipping in the right back, who was presented with a simple finish from six yards, with Thibaut Courtois completely out of the picture.
It's not the first time Courtois' guard has been breached -- Lionel Messi had an early goal disallowed for intentional handball -- and Barcelona have come close on other occasions, most notably with a Xavi free kick that drew a brilliant flying save from the Belgian. Atletico have had their chances too, with the Barca defence and Victor Valdes looking pretty shaky, but they'll have to stop their guests from scoring again to have much hope of getting anything from this game. That'll be fairly tricky, because Barcelona look like they're in a mood.
Valencia were stunned by Sevilla at the Mestalla, going from 1-0 up after 25 minutes to a 2-1 loss. The third-place team, riding high after brushing aside Stoke City in the Europa League, would have expected a fairly straightforward win over their opponents, who started the day in 13th place. It looked like things were going that way when Tino Costa drilled a lovely long-range effort past Andres Palop fairly early in the first half, but then Sevilla struck back.
The equaliser was rather against the run of play, but the visitors didn't care. Jesus Navas swung in a cross and Gary Medel was on hand to head it home, and then a mixup in the Valencia defence allowed Navas to pounce from close range, making it 2-1. Sevilla then weathered a rather weary looking Valencia storm, holding out for the last twenty minutes in reasonably comfortable fashion.
Real Madrid moved one step closer to La Liga triumph as they edged 11th-place Rayo Vallecano away from home. It was hardly a vintage performance from Jose Mourinho's men, with plenty of chances going to the hosts, but a neat long-range backheel from Cristiano Ronaldo was enough to see them get the three points and extend their lead at the top of the table to thirteen points.
By the time Ronaldo had given the visitors the lead, Rayo could have been ahead 1-0, with only the width of the post separating the hosts from a goal after Piti had done excellent work in beating both Alvaro Arbeloa and Iker Casillas.
Even after Ronaldo's goal, the hosts were in a fairly promising position, but some last-ditch defending, a red card to Michu* and more Rayo wasted chances meant that the leaders managed to escape with all three points.
*It was a pretty normal challenge on Sami Khedira. Not entirely sure why it was worthy of a straight red.
With Real Madrid's 1-0 win against Rayo, Barcelona are faced with the prospect of needing a win to keep any sort of pace in the league whatsoever. They're thirteen points back from the top of La Liga as it stands, closer to Valencia (who lost to Sevilla) than they are to their arch rivals. Atletico Madrid are hardly an easy opponent, either - they have a habit of making their opponents work very hard at the Vicente Calderon. Can Barcelona get back on track here?
Substitutes from: Sergio Asenjo, Mario Suarez, Paulo Assuncao, Silvio Pereira, Eduardo Salvio, Luis Perea, Alvaro Dominguez.
Barcelona starting lineup (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano, Eric Abidal; Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas; Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta
Athletic Bilbao came into their match against Villarreal with a number of fatigued players and players with nagging injuries, and elected to rest some of their stars. They were made to pay for it by the Yellow Submarine, who have only lost once at El Madrigal this season despite their 17th position in the league table. They put in a solid performance in a 2-2 draw that neither team will be terribly disappointed with.
Marcos Senna opened the scoring and sent his team into the halftime break up 1-0 with a spectacular direct free kick in the 10th minute. Just before the break, striker Marco Ruben had to come out injured and was replaced by Nilmar, who would eventually have a big impact.
Down 1-0 at halftime, Marcelo Bielsa elected to sub in his rested star, Fernando Llorente. He missed an absolute sitter in the 53rd minute, but made up for it in the 62nd when he scored Athletic's equalizer. Four minutes later, Markel Susaeta put Les Leones ahead, giving them a fortunate lead after what was a poor first half from the visitors. Diego Lopez should have stopped the shot easily, but inexplicably let the ball go right by him.
Gorka Iriazoz matched Lopez on the other end with an absolute howler of his own, failing to handle a shot by Alejandro Martinuccio in the 68th minute. Nilmar was there to pounce on the rebound and netted the equalizer, snatching a valuable point and taking two away from Bilbao.
Sevilla are in need of a good result at the Mestalla to keep themselves in the race for the top four in Spain.
Real Madrid won't necessarily be able to clinch an easy win in a local derby against Rayo Vallecano.
Athletic Bilbao look to continue their challenge for fourth place when they travel to Villarreal on Sunday
It's a weekend of fantastic games here in Spain, with Sevilla travelling to Valencia, Athletic Bilbao taking on Villarreal, and Barcelona making the long trek back to Madrid for a duel with Atleti. Could be very revealing about the state of the Liga today; and it could also not tell us anything useful at all.