BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Atletico Madrid moved one step closer to its first Spanish league title in 18 years on Sunday with a 1-0 victory at Valencia, while Lionel Messi completed an emotional 3-2 comeback win for Barcelona at Villarreal two days after the death of former coach Tito Vilanova.
Atletico midfielder Raul Garcia scored with an impressive header in the 43rd minute, and its defense 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 remained within four points after coming from two goals down to beat Villarreal in its first game since the death of Vilanova.
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Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets wept as the two teams gathered at the center circle before kickoff at El Madrigal Stadium to observe a minutes of silence for Vilanova, who died on Friday after a battle with cancer, having led Barcelona to the league title last season. Vilanova was honored similarly across Spain’s first division this weekend.
Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said his team had been ”very affected” by Vilanova’s death, who was honored this weekend by more than 50,000 people who attended a memorial site at Camp Nou.
”It has touched all of us,” Iniesta said. ”I will take with me the example he set for us, both when he was with us and after.”
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 finally beat goalie Sergio Asenjo after Busquets and Cesc Fabregas combined to set the forward up to net his 27th league goal of the campaign and reach the 40-goal mark in all competitions for the fifth straight season.
Earlier, 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 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.”
Atletico can now focus on the Champions League semifinals as it travels to Chelsea on Wednesday after a 0-0 draw in the first leg.
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.
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 defender Juanfran Torres was shown a direct red card for tackling Pablo Piatti in stoppage time.
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, while Almeria fought back for a 2-1 win at nine-man Espanyol to move to within two points of safety.
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 in the 72nd.
Kevin Gameiro scored Sevilla’s consolation goal in the 79th.
The win lifted Bilbao six points clear of fifth-placed Sevilla.
”This win over Sevilla is huge, but this isn’t over,” said Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde. ”We are knocking on the door. We are three points away from the Champions League, which would be a dream for everyone.”