Atletico Madrid moving closer to Spanish title after beating Valencia
Atletico de Madrid's Diego Costa of Brazil, front, protests a decision by the referee during their Spanish League soccer match against Athletic Bilbao., at San Mames stadium in Bilbao, Spain, Saturday, March 29, 2014. Athletico de Madrid won the match 2-1. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press
Published Sunday, April 27, 2014 4:23PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, April 27, 2014 5:17PM EDT
BARCELONA, Spain -- Atletico Madrid moved one step closer to its first Spanish league title in 18 years on Sunday with a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Valencia, while Lionel Messi completed Barcelona's wild 3-2 comeback win at Villarreal to keep alive its chances of repeating as champion.
Midfielder Raul Garcia scored with an impressive header in the 43rd minute, and Atletico's defence did the rest as it gave Valencia no chance to rally at its Mestalla Stadium.
Diego Simeone's side moved six points clear of Real Madrid, which has a game in hand, while Barcelona trails by four points after its dramatic win two days after the death of former coach Tito Vilanova.
Atletico can now focus on the Champions League semifinals when it travels to Chelsea on Wednesday after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.
Garcia's ninth goal of the league season kept Atletico on course for its first league title since 1996.
With a better head-to-head record against Madrid, Atletico can now clinch the domestic crown by winning two of its remaining three games. It first plays at Levante, then hosts Malaga, and finally travels to Barcelona.
"We have two very powerful teams behind us that will surely win all their games and we can't relax for even one day," Simeone said. "I ask my team to go forward with the same sense of calm knowing the importance of each result."
Also, Athletic Bilbao routed 10-man Sevilla 3-1 at home to deal a blow to its main rival for fourth place and Spain's last Champions League berth.
Again, Atletico snuffed out their opponents' attack for a ninth straight victory. The pacesetters have only conceded one goal during their winning run while scoring 14.
Valencia, which was left in eighth place, hosts Sevilla on Thursday needing to overturn a 2-0 loss to advance to the final of the Europa League.
Except for Pablo Alcacer's shot by the post before the first minute was up, Atletico resisted Valencia's early push and then went forward in search of an opening goal that came just before halftime.
Garcia used an exquisite flick of the head -- with his back to goal -- to lift Gabi Fernandez's lobbed pass over goalkeeper Vicente Guaita and bouncing in off the post.
Atletico's Diego Costa had two chances to seal the result in the 51st and again in the 84th, but Guaita saved both his shots.
Atletico defender Juanfran Torres was shown a direct red card for tackling Pablo Piatti from behind in stoppage time.
Like the other grounds in Spain this weekend, a moment of silence was observed at El Madrigal Stadium for Vilanova, who died on Friday after a battle with cancer, with Barcelona's and Villarreal's players gathered at the centre circle.
And after falling behind, Barcelona managed to rally with some help from Villarreal to keep alive its defence of the league title that Vilanova led it to last season.
Ruben "Cani" Gracia and Manuel Trigueros scored from counterattacks for Villarreal to go 2-0 up by the 55th minute.
But Villarreal then self-destructed with own goals by Gabriel Armando in the 65th and Mateo Musacchio in the 78th, both redirecting passes by Dani Alves into their team's net.
Messi then finally beat goalie Sergio Asenjo after Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas combined to set the forward up to net his 27th league goal of the campaign. Messi reached 40 goals in all competitions for the fifth straight season.
In Bilbao, forward Markel Susaeta got the Basques rolling in the fifth minute by scoring a rarely seen goal directly from a corner kick, curling the ball from the corner flag inside the near post to beat goalkeeper Antonio "Beto" Bastos.
Right back Andoni Iraola then served two crosses for Iker Muniain to volley in the 54th and Ander Herrera to head home moments after Sevilla's Diogo Figueras picked up a second booking for protesting in the 72nd.
Kevin Gameiro scored Sevilla's consolation goal in the 79th.
The big win lifted Bilbao six points clear of fifth-placed Sevilla.
Elsewhere, Almeria fought back for a 2-1 win at nine-man Espanyol to keep alive its hopes of staying in the first division as it moved to within two points of safety.