Barcelona retake top spot with win
BARCELONA, Spain (AP)
Lionel Messi didn't score but he played a part in two goals, setting up Pedro Rodriguez to make it 2-0 in the 55th after Gerard Pique had opened five minutes before halftime. Pedro then took Messi's pass and crossed for Alexis Sanchez to tap in the hosts' third in the 61st.
Atletico Madrid stayed level with Barcelona at the top of the standings by romping to a 4-2 win at Rayo Vallecano as Diego Costa scored his 20th league goal of the season.
Both titles rivals shook off two straight draws to restore a one-point advantage over Real Madrid.
The match at Camp Nou came just three days after Sandro Rosell stepped down to fight a lawsuit alleging he misappropriate fundsd by hiding the true cost of the signing of Brazil star Neymar. He and the club deny the accusations. Josep Bartomeu attended his first match as the Catalan club's 40th president in the Camp Nou stands.
Pique said that although he didn't know if Rosell's exit was good for the club, he was sure the administrative turmoil hadn't affected the squad's focus on defending its Spanish league title.
''We continue competing the same way we have in recent years,'' said Pique. ''Off the pitch, it is something people talk about, but on the pitch it affects us very little.
''After all the bad moments we have had in these recent years we have maintained the league lead and that shows this group is strong and that we can stay on top,'' Pique said in a possible reference to the team dealing with former coach Tito Vilanova's and player Eric Abidal's illnesses.
Far from distracted, Gerardo Martino's team played one of its best games of the season, bombarding Malaga with 18 shots on-target of all types and from all angles.
Pique broke through when he used his stomach to control a corner kick flicked on by Alexis, sized up Willy Caballero and then drove the ball under the Malaga goalie.
Pique headed another corner kick against the woodwork moments before Pedro slotted inside the far post. Messi then dribbled at the Malaga defense to draw them in before laying off for Pedro, who found Alexis alone to score.
Barcelona's Ibrahim Afellay went on as a late substitute after recovering from a six-month injury layoff. It was his first appearance for Barcelona since May 2012.
Elsewhere, Athletic Bilbao striker Aritz Aduriz scored two goals and set up another in a 5-1 rout at 10-man Osasuna as the Basque club strengthened its grip on fourth place. Almeria edged Getafe 1-0 courtesy of striker Jonathan Zongo's second-half header to escape the relegation zone.
Diego Costa only trails Madrid's 22-goal Cristiano Ronaldo as the league's leading scorer, and the Brazilian-born player's passing was key to Atletico's first two goals at Vallecas Stadium.
''It was important to win after two draws,'' said Atletico striker David Villa, who downplayed the move back to the top. ''We had to win, that's the important thing, going ahead game by game. We can't think about the rest.''
However, Atletico's win was tarnished by the shoulder injury to young midfielder Oliver Torres in the second half.
Villa got Atletico rolling in the eighth minute after he stole the ball deep in Rayo's territory and worked a one-two passing combination with Diego Costa before firing in his 10th league goal of the season.
After Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois saved Jonathan Viera's penalty, Arda Turan took his first of two goals in the 30th to finish off a collective effort, with the ball flowing from Diego Costa through a generous Sosa for Turan to roll in.
Viera made up for his miss by scoring in the 40th, but Turan struck again in the 44th.
Diego Costa found the net for the first time in 2014 when he redirected Filipe Luis' cross in the 74th before Joaquin Larrivey responded almost immediately for Rayo's second.