La Liga leaders Barcelona ended 2012 on a high when Lionel Messi struck his 91st goal of the year in a 3-1 win at Real Valladolid while arch-rivals Real Madrid slumped to a 3-2 defeat at Malaga.
It was the perfect tonic for Barca following the news that coach Tito Vilanova had to have throat surgery on Thursday.
Real’s woes deepened after the stuttering champions suffered a second consecutive setback following last weekend’s 2-2 draw at home with Espanyol.
Coach Jose Mourinho sprung a surprise by leaving captain and goalkeeper Iker Casillas on the bench and the defeat left Real 16 points adrift of Barca.
Mourinho told a post-match news conference that Real were “facing an insurmountable gap” but dismissed a question about whether he feared for his job.
“Football is football, why should I fear for my job?” the Portuguese asked.
“We coaches know perfectly well that football has no memory. The titles you have won don’t count, the work you have done doesn’t count,” he said.
“Losing always hurts, but it hurts me more when you don’t give what you are able to give,” Mourinho said. “In the brief chat I had with the players I told them they can go home sad at losing, but in the knowledge that they did their job to the best of their ability.”
Valladolid kept Barca at bay until two minutes before halftime when Messi played Jordi Alba through and Xavi turned his low cross into the net.
Messi doubled Barca’s lead in the 59th minute with a trademark run and finish. Xavi’s clever back-heel set the Argentine on his way and Messi dinked the ball between a defender’s legs before firing a low shot into the far corner.
Javi Guerra pulled a goal back for Valladolid in the 89th minute before Cristian Tello added a third for Barca in added time.
Isco fired Malaga ahead with a low shot from the edge of the area four minutes after the break.
A Sergio Sanchez own-goal in the 66th minute brought Real level, but two goals in quick succession from substitute Roque Santa Cruz left the visitors reeling.
Mesut Ozil set up Karim Benzema for Real’s second eight minutes from time, but Malaga held on.
Real Betis suffered a 2-1 loss at home to Real Mallorca, Athletic Bilbao lost 2-0 at home to Real Zaragoza and Osasuna stayed in the relegation places after a 2-1 defeat at home to Granada.