Barca start with a bang but Ronaldo & Bale issues need resolving at Madrid
A look back at the weekend in La Liga, where Barcelona warmed up with a win ahead of a huge week ...
Barca start big week perfectly
Barcelona got a big week off to a perfect start on Saturday with three points, two Lionel Messi goals and another clean sheet in the 2-0 win at Eibar.
Luis Enrique only started four of his likely XI for Wednesday's Champions League last-16 second leg at home to Manchester City and Eibar actually had more shots over the 90 minutes (13-12) but the result was never really in doubt as the visitors looked both mentally and physically switched on.
Messi also marked the occasion with some touches of genius to add to the growing impression that back close to his best. While rationing his energy through Barca's last two games, the Argentine has scored five times and overtaken an out-of-sorts Cristiano Ronaldo as La Liga's top scorer -- a nicely timed move ahead of next Sunday's Clasico at the Camp Nou.
Enrique's more direct team have a knack of picking up points without playing too much flowing football and at the moment are reserving their best performances for the biggest games -- which bodes well.
Bale back among the goals, but Madrid issues still unresolved
Gareth Bale went into Sunday evening's game against Levante as the symbol of Real Madrid's recent issues. He had not scored in any of his past nine games and made little impact in the previous week's losses to Athletic Bilbao domestically and Schalke in Europe.
Bale looked extra motivated right from the start against Levante, though, and within 18 minutes had ended his drought, celebrating like a man who pays more attention to his critics than we had previously expected. The Welshman's second goal was also deftly taken, although you could argue that snaffling goals from close range does not really answer those who say his tactical and positional flaws mean Madrid's 4-3-3 cannot control games against opponents who pack midfield.
The return of Luka Modric after four months out injured may help Madrid in this, but the whistles at full time at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday night suggest Carlo Ancelotti and his side still have plenty of points to prove next weekend.
Valencia up to third after again turning screw after break
Valencia were expected to beat Deportivo la Coruna at home on Friday night but the first half was pretty even, with the visitors having their fair share of the play and the chances.
After the break Valencia came out much more aggressive and intense and deservedly went ahead through Dani Parejo's penalty just past the hour mark. Just 10 minutes later, substitute Paco Alcacer killed the game by netting from close range with just his second touch.
Nuno's side are making a habit of coming on strong in the second half of matches. Last week at Atletico Madrid they were 1-0 down at the break and seemingly out of the game but they hung in and got a huge equaliser late on. A fortnight ago it was 0-0 at Mestalla at home to Real Sociedad, but they turned the screw after break and won 2-0. Los Che have only been ahead at halftime in one of their last six games but they've ended up winning five and drawing at the champions.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone pointed out markedly on Sunday, as his team were passed in the table, that Valencia not playing in any Cup competitions was a big advantage over their challengers for a top four spot. Nuno's side's ability to come on strong in the second half could be down to that.
Atletico in battle for top four?
Atletico Madrid's goalless draw at Espanyol means Simeone's side have won just one of their last six games. Last year's champions have dropped to fourth in La Liga and face a real battle to qualify for next season's Champions League.
Saturday afternoon's display at Cornella was Atletico's best for a while as they had the better of the game even while playing the second half with 10 men after Miranda had been red carded for an elbow on Espanyol midfielder Abraham.
Antoine Griezmann had a goal disallowed and Espanyol goalkeeper Kiko Casilla saved well from Fernando Torres, Arda Turan and Raul Garcia. But the latest blank means that Simeone's side have only scored in two of those last six outings in all competitions.
All of which means that Tuesday night's Champions League last-16 second leg at home to Bayer Leverkusen must be seen as a chance for Atletico to turn around a season which is heading the wrong way.
Relegation zone latest
It is very much a case of "as you were" at the bottom of the table, after just one of the teams in the bottom seven managed to pick up a point -- and that was Almeria drawing 0-0 at home to a Villarreal side distracted by the Europa League.
Bottom team Cordoba look forlorn after an eighth successive defeat -- 2-0 at neighbours Malaga -- and remain seven points adrift of safety.
Granada, Deportivo, Levante, Elche and Eibar all failed to pick up points on what was admittedly a difficult weekend's fixtures for the teams at the bottom.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan