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La Liga Review: Barcelona held but still extend Lead

It promised to be a testing weekend for the top two in La Liga and that was exactly how it proved with both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid dropping points. Real are now just 2 points off their city rivals following a routine 3-0 win over Alaves and can go above them with victory in the Madrid derby next weekend but they remain 8 points back on Barcelona.

Elsewhere, Villarreal boss Javi Calleja suffered late heartbreak following his shock return to the Ceramica, just seven weeks after his sacking. They could only draw 2-2 at home to Espanyol to remain 19th. There was a rare ray of light for bottom club Huesca though as they thumped Valladolid 4-0 for only their third win of the season. Here were some of the main stories from the weekend in La Liga:

Messi rescues a point for Barca

Barcelona may ultimately reflect on a weekend where they have extended their lead but there was plenty to concern Ernesto Valverde and fans of the Catalan club on Saturday. At home to a resurgent Valencia, they fell 2-0 down in the 1st Half with Kevin Gameiro and Dani Parejo converting for Los Che.

Somewhat inevitably, Barcelona found their response in the form of Leo Messi. Two goals from the Argentine, one from the penalty and one expertly placed from range, secured a point for Barca but they didn’t really deserve any more. Valencia produced some fine counter-attacking football and had chances to restore their two goal advantage in the Second Half.

Valencia’s performance was somewhat reminiscent of that of Real Betis earlier this term on their visit to Camp Nou. Both sides were measured in their gameplans but committed many bodies into counter-attacks when the time was right and at times Barca were badly caught out in both games. That will offer hope to Real Madrid heading into a month which will see three Clasicos played, the first of which will be this Wednesday. It should also offer hope to Barca’s rivals in the Champions League, a competition they are desperate to win this term.

Atleti lose on Morata debut

It was anything but a dream debut for Alvaro Morata on his return to Spanish football. This time lining up with Atletico rather than Real Madrid, the striker again looked much like the player who lost his way at Chelsea and failed to make much impact on the game. Atleti ironically looked more threatening up top once they introduced Nikola Kalinic, a player that is now looking set for a summer exit.

However that wasn’t until 15 minutes to go and they were already 1-0 down by that point. A moment of madness from Filipe Luis saw the Brazilian handle in the penalty area to offer Betis the chance to break the deadlock in a tight game. Sergio Canales converted for the hosts, who had rarely threatened prior to that.

It was an impressive result for Betis, particularly given they’d played 120 minutes in the cup just a few days earlier and rested some players with an eye on this week’s Semi-Final against Valencia. For Atleti though, it was a second league defeat of the season and not only did they miss the chance to capitalise on Barca’s slip-up, they actually ended the weekend even further back.

5 Straight Wins for Real Madrid

Real Madrid picked up their 5th straight win in all competitions without too many alarms at home to Alaves. The Basques defended stubbornly but never really looked like getting a result from the game. Santi Solari was clearly keen to build momentum heading into the Clasico and resisted the urge to rest players and was rewarded when Karim Benzema kept his fine form going with the opening goal on the half hour.

Alaves resisted Real, who they’d beaten earlier in the season, for a further 50 minutes. However as they finally decided to throw a bit of caution to the wind, Real Madrid added two more goals through the increasingly impressive Vinicius and Mariano late on to seal a comfortable 3-0 victory.

There is a sense now that Santi Solari is starting to make his mark on this side both in terms of style and personnel. There were further starts for Álvaro Odriozola and Sergio Reguilón and both full-backs impressed with an assist each and some lively wing play. Marcelo, Marco Asensio and Isco were on the bench again although there was a start for Gareth Bale, who was largely ineffectual in 63 minutes. The time on the pitch should at least benefit the Welshman heading into this key phase in the season when he could have a major role to play.

Sociedad win the Basque Derby

The other big game this weekend took place in San Sebastian where Basque rivals Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao met. Both sides were unbeaten in La Liga under their new coaches but it was La Real who managed to put an end to their home struggles and seal a league double over their local rivals.

First Half goals from Mikel Oyarzabal and Willian Jose sealed what was only their 3rd home league win of the campaign. It was also by far their most notable win since the major renovations that took place at the Anoeta throughout last season and during the summer and Imanol will be hoping his side can use the result as a major building block.

Sociedad are now just 2 points outside the European places and with the likes of Alaves, Getafe and even Sevilla wobbling a touch, a push for Europa League qualification looks very possible. Athletic, who grabbed a late consolation through Raul Garcia, were left to reflect on their first league loss under Gaizka Garitano. They are 4 points further back and for now will still be focused on trying to put distance between themselves and the bottom three with a huge scrap for safety building below them. They face a tough game next weekend though when Barcelona visit San Mames.

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