Barcelona close on La Liga title as Real Madrid slip at home to Valencia
Following a decisive weekend at the top of La Liga, it seems a matter of when, rather than if, Barcelona will win the league. Here's what we learned ...
Barca title party set to start
Barcelona were not at their free-flowing best at home to Real Sociedad on Saturday afternoon, but a Neymar header and then late bicycle-kick from substitute Pedro Rodriguez was enough to see off the spirited challenge of David Moyes' side.
Real Madrid kicked off directly afterward but before coach Luis Enrique had finished his post-match news conference, Los Blancos were already 2-0 down at home to Valencia.
Carlo Ancelotti's side fought back for a 2-2 draw, but even the Italian coach admitted afterward their situation was now "difficult" as they are four points behind Barca with just two games to play.
Even if Madrid win both their remaining games, a Barca win either at Atletico Madrid next Sunday, or at home to Deportivo La Coruna at the Camp Nou the following Saturday will secure the title for Lionel Messi and Co.
Celebrations now look most likely next weekend at the Estadio Vicente Calderon -- the potential La Liga players' strike notwithstanding.
Champions-elect are solid
Barca's front three have been grabbing plenty of headlines recently, with Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez banging in goals left, right and centre.
Neymar's header in Saturday's 2-0 win at home to Real Sociedad was his 50th goal for the Camp Nou club and also brought the all-South American trident to 106 among them in all competitions this term.
Saturday also brought another, perhaps even more impressive, statistic. The result meant that Barca have won seven consecutive matches without conceding a goal for the first time in the club's 115-year history. Their combined goal difference over that time is 25-0, as Luis Enrique's team move relentlessly towards the La Liga and Champions League trophies.
"We are on a good run without conceding a goal and the players know how important it is," Luis Enrique said on Saturday. "That solidity shows there is a plan and the players execute it fantastically well."
Rotating goalkeepers is also not an issue; 22 La Liga clean sheets have come with Claudio Bravo in goal while Marc Andre Ter-Stegen has kept 11 in cup competitions.
Madrid's issues run through team
Solidity is not a word associated with Real Madrid's performances at the moment, with Ancelotti's men continuing to concede soft goals at crucial moments.
Both the top two have scored 107 goals in the league so far this season, but Madrid have let in almost twice as many goals, with 34 conceded to their rivals' 19.
The issues with balance were again on show at home to Valencia on Saturday evening. They were pretty unlucky not to score during the first half, with front three Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier Hernandez all hitting the woodwork and Ronaldo having a penalty saved Diego Alves.
There was nothing unfortunate about the goals Madrid conceded, however. For the first, Valencia's centre-forward Paco Alcacer got ahead of marker Pepe for a shot which goalkeeper Iker Casillas could have saved. The second saw Javi Fuego heading in Dani Parejo's free kick.
European places clearing up
Atletico Madrid are assured of a third consecutive season of Champions League football in 2015-16 after Sunday lunchtime's 2-2 draw at Levante but still need one more win to secure third spot ahead of Valencia.
Los Che's draw at the Bernabeu means they also need three more points from their last two games to ensure they stay ahead of currently fifth-placed Sevilla, who drew 1-1 at Celta Vigo on Sunday evening.
Villarreal are now certain to finish in sixth place, with the return of key midfielder Bruno Soriano helping them to a 1-0 win over Elche and assuring the Yellow Submarine will play in the Europa League next term.
Another Europa League spot will open up should Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final. Malaga's 2-1 win at Almeria has them in seventh spot on 50 points, but Athletic, Espanyol and Celta all still have a chance of overtaking them.
All still to play for at the bottom
Granada's 2-0 win over already-relegated Cordoba was the biggest result of the weekend at the bottom. New coach Jose Ramon Sandoval has now won both his games in charge -- Granada had won just four before he took over -- and they have now moved to 31 points.
Eibar, who 2-0 at home to Espanyol on Friday night, also have 31 points, as do Deportivo La Coruna, who got a last-minute equaliser to draw 1-1 at Athletic Bilbao. Should all three remain deadlocked, then head-to-head records would save Granada and send the other two down.
It's not that simple however. Almeria are currently on 32 points, but may still be docked points by FIFA for a transfer irregularity if the Court of Arbitration of Sport rules in time. Elche are mathematically safe on 40 points but they could be forced down by La Liga's authorities due to their debts.
So it's all still to play for on and off the pitch in La Liga's relegation battle.
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