Athletic Bilbao produced a superb first-half display to ease past Levante 3-0 and move to within four points of their fourth-placed opponents in the race for a Champions League place.
Fernando Amorebieta opened the scoring after 11 minutes as he took advantage of uncharacteristically slack marking from Levante to head home Markel Susaeta’s corner.
Oscar de Marcos then passed up two glorious opportunities to double the hosts’ advantage before redeeming himself five minutes before half-time as he danced past the Levante defence and floated an excellent ball across for Fernando Llorente to head home.
Levante came back into the game in the second period and were unlucky not to get a goal back when Arouna Kone was wrongly flagged offside on 54 minutes.
However, it was the home side who wrapped up the three points in the final minute when, following Levante defender Juanfran’s dismissal for a second booking, Mikel San Jose was left all alone to head home his second goal of the week from Inigo Perez’s cross.
Athletic had returned to scoring form in midweek with a 4-0 thumping of Albacete in the Copa del Rey and with Spain international Llorente again leading the line they displayed some of their best football of the season so far in the opening 45 minutes.
Amorebieta got things going early on when he rose highest to power home an excellent header, and with the confidence of that early goal behind them the home side moved the ball with great speed and intelligence.
Llorente tested Gustavo Munua with a fierce drive from the edge of the area before De Marcos headed Amorebieta’s excellent cross just wide.
De Marcos was guilty of missing an even better chance 10 minutes later as a ricochet inside the Levante box fell perfectly for the former Alaves man but his lofted effort over Munua went just wide.
Jose Barkero nearly brought Levante level against the run of play with a curling free-kick that also went just past the post, but Athletic deservedly took a two-goal lead into the break when Llorente was left with the easiest of finishes after De Marcos’ run and cross.
That was Llorente’s first goal since early November.
Levante coach Juan Ignacio Martinez brought on Valdo for Nano at half-time and the attacking change made a difference as the visitors posed a much greater threat after the break.
Barkero and Kone tested Gorka Iraizoz and the Ivorian striker was desperately unlucky as his finish from a narrow angle was ruled out for offside.
Thereafter though Athletic reasserted their stranglehold on the game and Munua did well to save on two occasions to deny Iker Muniain at the end of great individual runs.
The visitors were reduced to 10 men in the final minute as Juanfran was given a second yellow card for dissent and his absence arguably cost his side another goal as San Jose took advantage of the space he vacated at the near post to guide Perez’s corner into the net it make it 3-0.