Real Madrid breezed past feeble Espanyol to make it three convincing home wins out of three under Zinedine Zidane.
The damage was done in the first half, when the hosts were utterly dominant and quickly wrapped up the points with goals from Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez and two from Cristiano Ronaldo, who completed his hat-trick in the latter stages before Oscar Duarte’s own goal made it six.
Espanyol were missing no fewer than four forwards, so it was perhaps no surprise to see the visitors playing like strangers, and an early sign of the onslaught to follow came when Marcelo fired over the bar before a minute had elapsed. Ronaldo then had a shot saved and Isco flashed a low effort just wide, and the opening goal was only a matter of time.
It arrived when James found space to cross from the right and his whipped delivery found Benzema, whose glancing header cannoned off his shoulder before drifting into the corner.
Three minutes later it was two, as Ronaldo was sent sprawling inside the area by a poor challenge from Enzo Roco and picked himself up to send a firm low penalty past debutant keeper Giedrius Arlauskis. And the Lithuanian was picking the ball out of the net once again when Dani Carvajal raced forward and, when he was challenged, the loose ball fell to James whose powerful strike took a big deflection off Papakouli Diop and flew into the net.
The visitors had a good chance just before the break when Mamadou Sylla broke down the right and crossed for Salva Sevilla, whose powderpuff shot summed up his team’s first half efforts. And worse immediately followed for Espanyol as Ronaldo broke forward, beat one challenge with a back heel flick and another with a stepover before thrashing home an unstoppable left-footed drive.
Madrid relaxed in the second half but gradually reignited and Benzema headed straight at Arlauskis before Ronaldo’s free-kick grazed the roof of the net.
Ronaldo completed his hat-trick with a close-range header from Jese Rodriguez’s brilliant cross, and the scoring was completed when another Jese delivery was turned into his own net by Oscar Duarte.
Meanwhile, Gary Neville’s winless league run as Valencia coach stretched to eight games as his side were beaten 1-0 by relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon.
The hosts were the dominant side for most of the game but failed to take a string of chances and fell behind to Antonio Sanabria’s penalty on 50 minutes. They continued to throw everything at their opponents but Alvaro Negredo missed two chances to equalise.
Elsewhere, Kevin Gameiro scored one and made another as Sevilla beat Levante 3-1 to move into fifth while Las Palmas moved out of the bottom three as Willian Jose’s last-minute goal earned a priceless 2-1 victory over 10- man Celta Vigo.
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Barcelona took control of the La Liga title race as goals from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez inspired a come from behind 2-1 win against nine-man Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Koke handed the visitors a deserved early lead, but Barca turned the game thanks to two goals in eight minutes before the break through Messi and Suarez.
Atletico’s hopes of salvaging a point were then ruined as Filipe Luis and Diego Godin were sent-off for rash challenges either side of half-time.
? Bravo: "it was a tough game beacuse they were very strong, but we came out on top in the duel and that is thanks to our work in the week"— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 30, 2016
Victory takes Barca three points clear of Atletico at the top of the table – having also played a game less – and seven points clear of third-placed Real Madrid, who host Espanyol on Sunday.
The clash between La Liga’s top two pitted Europe’s most feared attack against its strongest defence, but it was Atletico who started on the front foot.
Saul Niguez’s dipping effort was brilliantly turned over by Claudio Bravo after just two minutes.
However, another Niguez burst provided the opening goal eight minutes later when his cross from the right just evaded Antoine Griezmann and was slotted home at the far post by Koke.
Atletico could even have had a more commanding lead as Augusto Fernandez flashed a shot inches wide with Barca struggling to get a foothold in the game.
The European champions had been outplayed by Malaga and Athletic Bilbao in the first-half of their previous two games before reacting after the break, but they clicked into gear in the final 15 minutes of the first-half to turn the game on its head.
Suarez fired a warning shot that Jan Oblak got down well to save at his near post.
However, the Slovenian’s 483-minute run without conceding was ended when Jordi Alba showed great composure to pull a low cross into Messi’s path to smash home.
Atletico were then caught uncharacteristically flat-footed as Dani Alves’s long ball over the top picked out Suarez, who showed great strength to hold off compatriot Jose Maria Gimenez, before slotting between Oblak’s legs.
The game looked over as a contest a minute before the break when Luis was sent-off for high, studs-up, challenge on Messi inside the Barcelona half.
Yet, despite their numerical disadvantage, Atletico still started the second period the better.
Yannick Carrasco’s lung-bursting run was snuffed out at the last hurdle by Gerard Pique.
The Belgian then produced a fine cross for Griezmann, but his acrobatic effort from point-blank range was brilliantly saved by Bravo.
Atletico’s resistance was undone by their own stupidity again 25 minutes from time, though, as Godin lunged in on Suarez and was rightly shown a second yellow card.
Barca then rubbed salt into the visitors’ wounds by introducing former Atletico midfielder Arda Turan for Ivan Rakitic and the Turkish international was inches away from his first goal since swapping the Spanish capital for the Camp Nou when his shot flew just wide of the far post.
And a horrible day for Diego Simeone’s men was rounded off when Fernandez had to be stretchered from the field with what looked like a serious knee injury 15 minutes from time.
Just over a year ago, Barcelona were floundering. The signing of Luis Suarez had done nothing to improve the fortunes of a team which failed to land any silverware at the end of the previous season, and manager Luis Enrique was facing increasing pressure after overseeing an unconvincing series of performances.
Everything turned, however, in the course of one game in early January, when Barca finally found a sense of direction and purpose.
Barca won 3-1, Messi, Suarez and Neymar all got onto the scoresheet for the very first time, and the rest is history. The vanquished opponents were none other than Atletico Madrid. And on Saturday, the latest rematch with Diego Simeone’s side will provide the biggest clue yet as to whether the ‘MSN’ forward line will dominate world football in 2016 as they did in 2015.
Make no mistake, Barcelona possess a wonderful squad. But Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and the rest are the sub-plot: the thing that sets them apart is Messi, Suarez and Neymar – both individually and for their brilliant combination play, making them close to unstoppable.
MSN’s ability to rescue their team was seen as recently as Wednesday, when Barca were struggling in their Copa del Rey clash with Athletic Bilbao until Messi crossed for Suarez to score and the tie turned decisively in their favour. Can they be stopped? If any team can, it is surely Atletico, who have conceded just three goals in their opening 11 away league games this season – something never achieved before.
Atletico’s defensive excellence begins with the seriously under rated Diego Godin, the Uruguayan central defender who is a model of consistency and reliability. Godin sets the tone for Atletico’s defending by doing just that: defending.
Unlike Barca’s back four, who are responsible for starting attacks just as much as ending those of the opposition, Godin does not care too much where the ball goes once he clears it. He just gets it out of the danger zone, taking no chances, and backs himself to clear it again when it comes back. It is almost an ‘anti-Barca’ approach but Atletico do it brilliantly, relying on their organisation, determination and mental resilience to repel anything thrown at them.
And their organisation, masterminded by Simeone’s attention to detail, is another key element. However the opposition attacks them – whether they play the ball along the ground or in the air, long or short – Atletico’s positioning is so solid, their collective movement so well-rehearsed, it can be impossible to find space.
They surround, smother, frustrate and, when the ball presents itself, get rid of it. Atletico’s defence is not infallible, as demonstrated by Barca’s recent successes against them, but they present the biggest possible challenge to attackers.
If Godin and company claim another clean sheet today, it could swing the title race decisively in Atletico’s direction. That’s a very big ‘if’, but don’t rule it out.