Barca close gap on Real
A review of the weekend's action in the Spanish Primera Division.
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Barcelona closed to within a point of Primera Division leaders Real Madrid after an emphatic, if not always totally convincing, 4-1 victory over Almeria at the Nou Camp.
After Real and city rivals Atletico Madrid had played out a 2-2 draw earlier in the day, Sunday's late contest afforded Barcelona the chance to get right back in the title mix after their costly defeat at Real Sociedad last weekend.
Alexis Sanchez set the hosts on their way in the 10th minute before a superb Lionel Messi free-kick made it 2-0 inside 25 minutes.
A moment's sloppiness in the Barca backline allowed Angel Trujillo to pull one back for Almeria and at 2-1 Barca endured more than one or two nervy moments as the visitors probed for a leveller.
It took until the 83rd minute for Barcelona to finally put the contest to bed, Carles Puyol following up with a smart finish after Messi's header had come back off the bar, while there was still time for Xavi to inflate the scoreline further with a sumptuous fourth.
As previously mentioned, Real Madrid drew 2-2 with Atletico earlier in the day thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's strike eight minutes from time at Estadio Vicente Calderon which kept them three points ahead of their fierce city rivals.
Atletico looked on course for the derby bragging rights after first-half strikes from Koke and Gabi had put them ahead following Karim Benzema's early opener for Real.
But Ronaldo lashed home in the 82nd minute to the relief of boss Carlo Ancelotti and deny Atletico's hopes of completing a league double over their more celebrated rivals for the first time since 1951, having beaten them at the Bernabeu 1-0 earlier in the season.
A solitary goal by Joaquin Larrivey gave relegation-threatened Rayo Vallecano all three points against Valencia, moving the Madrid side to within three points of safety.
The Argentinian striker headed in the only goal of the game on 61 minutes and Valencia were dealt a further blow when Antonio Barragan was sent off a quarter of an hour later for picking up a second booking.
Rayo remain 19th in the table but have closed the gap on 17th-placed Almeria to three points, while Valencia suffered their first defeat in six matches and drop down to 9th.
Substitute Kevin Gameiro's second-half strike was all that separated the teams as Sevilla claimed a 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Gameiro struck after 77 minutes to end Sociedad's two-match winning run as Unai Emery's Red and Whites moved up a place to seventh.
Villarreal lost ground to Athletic Bilbao in their bid to finish fourth as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to bottom side Real Betis.
The hosts looked set to take all three points when Bruno Soriano gave them the lead from the penalty spot on 70 minutes, but the game changed 10 minutes later when Uche Ikechuwku was sent off for a second booking.
Betis then took advantage of having an extra man, Ruben Castro heading in the equaliser shortly after.
The point does little to help Gabriel Calderon's side's plight - the Andalusians are 11 points from safety and still face a gargantuan task if they are to avoid the drop - and is a blow to Villarreal, now six points behind fourth-placed Athletic.
Levante's new year charge for a European berth continued on Saturday as they beat Osasuna 2-0 - despite playing the last half-hour with a man less.
Joaquin Caparros' men looked more likely to be embroiled in a relegation fight after losing six of seven league matches around Christmas, but since suffering a 2-0 derby defeat to Valencia on January 4 they have compiled an unbeaten eight-match run to storm up the standings.
Their latest success came courtesy of first-half goals from Papakouli Diop and Ruben Garcia, although they were made to sweat for the points after losing Victor Casadesus to a red card in the 60th minute.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Elche eased their relegation concerns with a 1-0 home win over Celta Vigo.
Substitute Carles Gil struck the winner five minutes from time as Elche moved six points clear of third-bottom Real Valladolid, who drew 1-1 at fellow strugglers Malaga.
Roque Santa Cruz put Malaga ahead after 13 minutes, but Daniel Larsson levelled for the visitors after half an hour to leave Valladolid still three points adrift of the Andalusian side and safety.
One point better off than Malaga are Getafe, who drew 0-0 with Espanyol in Saturday's other match.
On Friday night, Aritz Aduriz kept Athletic Bilbao on course for the Champions League with a hat-trick in a comprehensive 4-0 win over Granada at San Mames.
The striker headed home the opener and fired in a fine 20-yard second to put the hosts in total command inside 20 minutes.
Aduriz then won the penalty which earned defender Diego Mainz a red card and allowed him to complete his hat-trick in the 73rd minute.
Carlos Gurpegi sealed a success which puts fourth-placed Athletic seven points clear of Villarreal.