Barcelona restored their lead at the top of La Liga to five points as Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi struck in the final 20 minutes to edge out 10-man Villarreal 2-0 on Sunday.
Daniel Raba’s red card on the hour mark for a wild lunge on Sergio Busquets handed Barca the initiative.
And their pressure told when Suarez rounded off a fine team move before Messi blasted home a second to get the Catalans back to winning ways after successive draws with Valencia and Celta Vigo in La Liga.
Valencia remain Barca’s closest challengers five points back, but Atletico Madrid also maintained their title charge with a 1-0 win at Real Betis to stay six points off the top.
Real Madrid are eight points back in fourth and Barca will have the chance to go into El Clasico away at Real in two weeks’ time with an 11-point lead over their rivals.
Barca host Deportivo la Coruna next weekend, whilst Madrid are in action at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.
Gerard Pique nearly gave Barca the perfect start at the Ceramic Stadium, where they have struggled in recent seasons, as his header came back off the crossbar from Messi’s corner just four minutes in.
However, Barca dominance of possession was largely stale before the break as Villarreal posed the greater threat on the counter-attack.
Nicola Sansone had the hosts’ best effort that forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a stunning one-handed stop high to his left.
Messi orchestrated the visitors’ attacking threat after the break as he constantly freed Jordi Alba down Barca’s left.
Paco Alcacer was denied by Sergio Asenjo from Alba’s low cross before the left-back teed up Messi for a cushioned effort that drifted inches wide.
Villarreal had to survive the final half hour a man light when Raba was dismissed for connecting with his studs on Busquets’ ankle as the Spanish international cleared.
Another Alba cross was turned onto the post by Suarez on the stretch.
However, the Uruguayan finally broke Villarreal’s resistance after exchanging a neat one-two with Alcacer to round Asenjo and net his seventh goal of the season.
And Messi secured all three points seven minutes from time as he was played in by Busquets to smash past the helpless Asenjo.
– Atletico bounce back –
Earlier, Atletico bounced back from the disappointment of being dumped out of the Champions League in midweek to keep their title challenge afloat at Betis.
The hosts dominated possession throughout but were made to pay for their lack of cutting edge, as well as some fine goalkeeping by Jan Oblak.
By contrast, Atletico were clinical even in the absence of the injured Antoine Griezmann as Saul Niguez slid in at the back post to turn home Sime Vrsaljko’s cross with their first serious attack on the half-hour mark.
“They played some spectacular football today, but we took advantage of the chance we had,” Atletico midfielder Koke told BeIN Sports Spain.
Betis posed more of a goal threat after the break but were denied by Oblak, who produced a wonder save to turn Cristian Tello’s sweetly struck half-volley behind for a corner.
“One team had the ball, which was Betis, and they tried many different ways to damage us, but the team was very strong defensively,” said Atletico boss Diego Simeone.
At the other end of the table, Malaga and Athletic Bilbao secured big away wins to ease their relegation fears.
Malaga remain in the drop zone but moved off the foot of the table with a 2-0 victory at Real Sociedad.
Athletic, meanwhile, bagged their first league win in nearly two months 2-1 at Levante to move up to 13th.- Agence France-Presse