Atletico Madrid remained on course for a surprise La Liga title triumph when Raul Garcia’s header secured a 1-0 victory for the leaders at home to Villarreal on Saturday that kept los Colchoneros on top, despite closest rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona also winning their matches.
Lionel Messi struck twice for Barca in a labored 3-1 home success against bottom-side Real Betis Balompie, as the Catalan side stayed hot on Atletico’s heels, a point adrift with six matches left — including a clash between the leaders and the defending champions at the Camp Nou on the final day of the season.
Third-placed Real stayed in the hunt two points behind Barca, after Gareth Bale smashed in a brilliant long-range effort and Asier Illarramendi scored against his former club in a 4-0 romp at sixth-placed Real Sociedad.
Atletico have 79 points from 32 matches, three more than last season, when they finished third. Barca are second on 78 and Real have 76.
Not since the 2006-2007 campaign has there been such a close three-way fight for the title. That season, Sevilla kept pace down to the wire with Real and Barca, who tied for first on 76 points — five ahead of the Seville side — with los Blancos ultimately crowned champions by virtue of a superior head-to-head record.
On Saturday, Atletico were missing top scorer Diego Costa and playmaker Arda Turan through injury, but dispatched seventh-placed Villarreal with an efficient performance in front of their boisterous fans enjoying the club’s best campaign since 1996, the last time they won the league.
Garcia nodded in a Koke corner in the 14th minute at a packed Estadio Vicente Calderon and the hosts comfortably bore sustained Villarreal pressure in the second half.
Argentine coach Diego Simeone has made Atletico genuine contenders in Spain and Europe since taking over at the end of 2011 despite the club commanding about one-fifth of the resources of Real and Barca, the world’s richest teams by income.
Atletico and Barca are locked at 1-1 in their Champions League quarter-final after the first leg at the Camp Nou last week and play the return in Madrid on Wednesday.
“I am running out of words to continue congratulating the players for their effort and commitment,” Simeone told a news conference.
Atletico are guaranteed at least a third-placed finish and a spot in the Champions League, as they are 23 points ahead of fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao.
Barca were well short of their best against a Betis side who put up an impressive fight despite being eight points adrift at the bottom.
Messi scored his first of the game from the penalty spot in the 15th minute after Betis defender Jordi Figueras fouled Alexis Sanchez.
Barca were unable to convert long periods of possession into goals and were fortunate to go 2-0 ahead when Figueras deflected the ball into his own net in the 67th.
Betis set the host’s nerves jangling two minutes later when they hit back through substitute Ruben Castro before Messi netted his second four minutes from time through another penalty.
Goalkeeper Adan saved the Argentina captain’s initial shot, but Messi put the rebound into the net for his 25th goal of the campaign, equaling Atletico’s Costa, but three fewer than leading Liga marksman Cristiano Ronaldo of Real.
At the Estadio Anotea, Real were without the injured Ronaldo and it took them until the 45th minute to open the scoring when Illarramendi stabbed in the rebound from a Karim Benzema effort.