Real Madrid took full advantage of their game in hand by defeating Sevilla with goals from James and Jese Rodriguez to move four points clear of Barcelona at the top of La Liga, with Iago Aspas’s strike coming too late for the disappointing visitors.
But the victory came at a high cost as James and Sergio Ramos limped off with injuries which make them major doubts for Saturday’s city derby trip at Atletico, while full-back Marcelo, Madrid’s outstanding performer last night, will definitely miss that trip through suspension after receiving his fifth booking of the campaign.
Ramos headed down the tunnel clutching his left hamstring after just nine minutes, with James following him nursing his foot less than 20 minutes later, and initial reports from the Bernabeu suggested both players will be unavailable this weekend.
Madrid will have Cristiano Ronaldo back in the side following his two-match suspension but Gareth Bale was once again in muted form for Los Blancos.
The injuries to Ramos and James formed just part of an eventful start to the encounter which could have seen Sevilla go ahead inside two minutes when Vicente Iborra slid a pass into the stride of Vitolo to send the winger one-on-one with Iker Casillas, but the home captain came out on top by saving with his legs.
Sevilla then contributed to their downfall for the opening goal as Stephane M’Bia squandered possession in midfield. The ball was eventually worked to Marcelo, who picked out the unmarked James for an easily converted far post header.
The visitors continued to carve out opportunities, wasting two good chances to level as Iborra rounded Casillas but struck the post before midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak headed wide from a corner.
Vitolo’s volley demanded a scrambled save from Casillas after more uncertain defending, and the hosts were forced into
another reshuffle as James limped off to be replaced by Jese, who went onto the left flank with the previously anonymous Bale returning to the right.
Then it was Sevilla’s turn to be disrupted as goalkeeper Beto was injured in a collision with Karim Benzema and replaced by youngster Sergio Rico, whose first act was to retrieve the ball from his net after Isco found Benzema and his cross was swept home by Jese as one substitute beat another.
More goals could have followed before the break as Sevilla lost their discipline, with Benzema shooting wide from Alvaro Arbeloa’s cross and Sami Khedira forcing a good low stop from Rico after a neat lofted pass from Bale.
The hosts looked like running away with the game in the early stages of the second period, with Bale making a surging run before wrongly electing to shoot rather than passing to the unmarked Benzema and seeing his shot blocked, and Jese then barrelling inside from the left wing to shoot into the side netting from a narrow angle.
Isco then forced a reflex save from Rico after a sparkling combination with Jese, and more magical approach play between Isco and Marcelo nearly created a goal for Benzema as the hosts started to turn the style.
But Sevilla pulled one back with ten minutes remaining when jinking dribble by Vitolo ended with cutback for substitute Aspas to convert, and Madrid defended nervously through the final stages but deservedly held on.
Lionel Messi scored a brilliant winner as Barcelona twice fought from behind to beat Villarreal 3-2 in an entertainment-packed clash at the Nou Camp.
Villarreal, unbeaten in any competition since the start of November, were briefly on course for their first win over Barca in 12 attempts thanks to goals from Denis Cheryshev and Luciano Vietto, which sandwiched a Neymar equaliser.
However, Barca then struck twice in quick succession during a frenetic start to the second half to record an eighth successive win in league and cup, Rafinha drawing the teams level before Messi curled home a stunning 20-yard strike.
Villarreal pushed for an equaliser as the game swept from one end to another, but Barca held firm to remain a point behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Sunday's encounter bore more than a passing similarity to Barca's Copa del Rey win over Atletico Madrid in midweek, where Luis Enrique's men also twice trailed before snatching a 3-2 win thanks to two quickfire goals.
On that occasion Barca found themselves behind inside a minute, but it should have been the Catalan side who took the lead on Sunday as they dominated the opening exchanges.
On-loan Liverpool striker Iago Aspas scored a last-minute winner to give Sevilla a thrilling 3-2 victory over Espanyol, who played the entire second half with 10 men after goalkeeper Kiko Casilla was sent off.
Christian Stuani put visitors Espanyol ahead from the penalty spot but the hosts levelled through a stunning strike from Diogo Figueiras and then Vitolo tapped home from close range to put Unai Emery's side ahead before the break.
Casilla was then handed his marching orders in the 40th minute but Sevilla were unable to capitalise on their man advantage in the second half and were left stunned by Victor Sanchez's 77th-minute equaliser.
However, Aspas eventually got the reward for his tireless performance by scoring the decisive goal in what was his first league start for the club.
Sevilla move one point clear of fellow Champions League chasers Valencia and into fourth in the Primera Division table, while Espanyol remain in ninth.
A brace from striker Aritz Aduriz saw Athletic Bilbao record a first league victory in over two months at the expense of bottom club Levante.
The Copa del Rey quarter-finalists were without a La Liga win since taking all three points at Getafe on Nov. 29, but Aduriz's double in a 2-0 success moves Ernesto Valverde's side away from the relegation zone ahead of next weekend's clash with Barcelona.
Levante remain rooted to the foot of the table with their own winless streak in the league now stretching back to Nov. 23, with four defeats from their last five league outings.
A solitary goal by Edgar Mendez saw Almeria pick up a vital 1-0 victory over fellow Primera Division strugglers Getafe.
The winger broke the deadlock in the 44th minute and the goal proved enough to decide an exciting and highly contested encounter which saw both sides finish with 10 men, with Almeria forward Tomer Hemed following Getafe's Sergio Escudero down the tunnel after being shown a second yellow card.
The win was Almeria's first home victory of the season and sees them climb out of the relegation zone and move within one point of Getafe, who lie 15th in the table.
Cristiano Ronaldo has escaped with just a two-game ban after his sending off in Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory at Cordoba on Saturday.
The Portuguese was dismissed in the closing stages, before his team’s late winner via a Gareth Bale penalty, after kicking out at Cordoba defender Edimar following a frustrating afternoon for Los Blancos.
However, referee Alejandro Hernandez did not view the incident as violent conduct, regarding it instead as a “blow to an opponent
without the ball being in playing distance”, which carries a lesser penalty.
And La Liga’s disciplinary committee decided to uphold that verdict when they met yesterday.
Ronaldo will now be absent for upcoming home games against Real Sociedad and Sevilla, but crucially he will be available for a crunch clash with reigning champions Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon a week on Saturday.
The decision is sure to anger title rivals Atletico and Barcelona, with some Catalan media speculating before the verdict that Ronaldo could be suspended for as many as 12 matches.
Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti will now have to decide how to replace his leading scorer for Saturday’s home meeting with David Moyes’s Sociedad.
He has plenty of options, with Javier Hernandez eager for a rare start and Jese Rodriguez hoping for his first full game since returning from injury, while Isco or Bale could also be moved forward.
Meanwhile, Bale has brushed aside reports he is unhappy at Real Madrid and has no thoughts of leaving the European champions.
Bale has been strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford with Manchester United reportedly keen to acquire his services.
However, Bale told Spanish radio station Cadena Ser: “I don’t see myself at Manchester United.
“I’m having a good time, we are winning trophies and I want to continue to do this at Real Madrid.
“I have many years left on my contract. I feel the support and love of the fans at the Bernabeu.”