Atletico Madrid moved one step closer to their first La Liga title in 18 years on Sunday with a 1-0 victory at Valencia, while Lionel Messi completed an emotional 3-2 comeback win for Barcelona at Villarreal two days after the death of former coach Tito Vilanova.
Atletico midfielder Raul Garcia scored with an impressive header in the 43rd minute and their defense did the rest as they gave Valencia no chance to rally at the Estadio Mestalla.
Diego Simeone’s side moved six points clear of Real Madrid, who have a game in hand, while Barcelona remained within four points after coming from two goals down to beat Villarreal in their first game since the death of Vilanova.
Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets wept as the two teams gathered at the center circle before the kickoff at El Madrigal to observe a minute’s silence for Vilanova, who died on Friday after a battle with cancer, having led Barcelona to the league title last season.
Vilanova was honored similarly across La Liga at the weekend.
Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said his team had been “very affected” by Vilanova’s death, who was honored at the weekend by more than 50,000 people who attended a memorial at the Camp Nou.
“It has touched all of us,” Iniesta said. “I will take with me the example he set for us, both when he was with us and after.”
Ruben “Cani” Gracia and Manuel Trigueros scored from counterattacks for Villarreal to go 2-0 up by the 55th minute, but the hosts then self-destructed with own-goals by Gabriel Armando in the 65th minute and Mateo Musacchio in the 78th, both redirecting passes by Dani Alves into their own net.
Messi finally beat goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo after Busquets and Cesc Fabregas combined to set the forward up to score his 27th league goal of the campaign and reach the 40-goal mark in all competitions for the fifth straight season.
Earlier, Garcia’s ninth goal of the season kept Atletico on course for their first title since 1995-1996.
With a better head-to-head record against Real Madrid, Atletico can clinch the domestic crown by winning two of their remaining three matches. They first plays at Levante UD, then host Malaga, before finally traveling to Barcelona.
“We have two very powerful teams behind us that will surely win all their games and we can’t relax for even one day,” Simeone said. “I ask my team to go forward with the same sense of calm, knowing the importance of each result.”
Atletico can now focus on the UEFA Champions League semi-final as they travel to Chelsea tomorrow after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.
Again, Atletico snuffed out their opponents’ attack for a ninth straight victory. The pacesetters have only conceded one goal during their winning run, while scoring 14.
Atletico resisted Valencia’s early push and then went forward in search of an opening goal that came just before halftime.
Garcia used an exquisite flick of the head — with his back to goal — to lift Gabi Fernandez’s lobbed pass over goalkeeper Vicente Guaita and bouncing in off the post.
Atletico defender Juanfran Torres was shown a direct red card for a foul on Pablo Piatti in stoppage-time.
Also on Sunday, Athletic Bilbao routed 10-man Sevilla 3-1 at home to deal a blow to their main rivals for fourth place and the last Champions League berth, while UD Almeria fought back for a 2-1 win at nine-man RCD Espanyol to move to within two points of safety.