Barcelona in crisis as Real Madrid and Atletico fire, Villarreal slip continues
Five thoughts from the weekend's La Liga action as Barcelona's implosion continues, Real Madrid and Atletico both won while Villarreal's hopes of a European place have slipped.
1. Barcelona in crisis mode
It seems a long time ago that Barcelona went 39 games unbeaten and were sailing towards an historic "double Treble" of Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey trophies.
At one stage, Luis Enrique's team had an eight point lead over Atletico Madrid and sat 12 points in front of Real Madrid, but they went into Sunday evening's home game against Valencia with just head-to-head advantage over Atletico, and Real within a point.
They ended the game in that position too -- losing 2-1 thanks to Ivan Rakitic's own goal and Santi Mina's crisp strike in the first half, before Lionel Messi's 500th career goal got once back after the break.
Barca actually played much better against Valencia than in recent defeats to Real Sociedad [in La Liga] and Atletico [in the Champions League]. But their finishing was awry when the game was 0-0, and they lacked either the good fortune or determination needed to turn things around when behind.
Last season, and even last month, Luis Enrique's side were more efficient in both penalty areas despite often looking like they were not in full control of games. The "MSN" trio took a high proportion of their chances, and goalkeeper Claudio Bravo stood strong when called upon.
The opposite happened [again] against Valencia. Los Che goalkeeper Diego Alves was man of the match; Bravo was at fault for the opener, and his defence was opened up much too easily. Messi was the only Blaugrana attacker close to playing well -- with Neymar and Suarez both missing simple chances early on and fading in the second half. Even still, Luis Enrique chose not to make a single substitution -- a sign of a lack of squad depth which is catching up on them now.
Barca go to mid-table Deportivo La Coruna on Wednesday night still top of the table, but with the team and the club in full-blown crisis.
2. Torres and Koke star again for Atletico
Earlier on Sunday afternoon, Atletico Madrid had kept up the pressure on Barca by easing to a 3-0 over Granada at the Vicente Calderon -- with Fernando Torres and Koke the stars for a third week in a row.
The early opening goal came when Torres' shot was blocked and Koke rammed in the rebound, while the killer second arrived just after half-time when the playmaker's typically measured through-ball was finished expertly by a forward who, at 32, has found his best form for years. Substitute Angel Correa got the third after both key men had been substituted to keep them fresh for Wednesday's tricky trip to Athletic Bilbao.
Koke is now up to 13 La Liga assists for the season -- more than anyone else in the division and more than even in 2013-14 when his relationship with Diego Costa was key to Atletico's title win. Torres has scored in three consecutive games in La Liga for the first time since March 2005, before he left for Liverpool, and has the best goals per minute record [one every 86 minutes] in La Liga of any Spanish player in 2016.
The duo's sensational run of form comes just at the right moment as Atletico press for trophies both domestically and in Europe. It has also helped their team score at least three times in five of their last six La Liga games. And reel Barca's lead in.
3. Real Madrid simmering nicely
Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane rested some of his key players for the trip to bottom team Getafe on Saturday afternoon, and his team still strolled to a 5-1 victory almost without breaking sweat.
Isco and James Rodriguez, high profile stars who did not feature at all in the Champions League comeback win against Wolfsburg midweek, both started and both scored. The first choice "BBC" of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo also found the net.
After a seventh straight La Liga win, Zidane appears totally in control of the situation and his side have now taken 38 points in from his first 15 La Liga games in charge. Over that time, Atletico have 35 points and Barca 34; Madrid have the toughest remaining fixture list of the three challengers, but they are in the best form at the moment.
Earlier this season, Zidane was coaching a Madrid Castilla team which lost 2-0 at home to Getafe B in Spain's third tier. That seems a long time ago now, with his team coming to the boil just at the decisive time of the season.
4. Battle for fourth is on now
Just a few weeks ago it seemed that Villarreal had fourth place all tied up, along with Champions League qualification for next year, but that race has tightened and fatigue could play a further part.
Sunday evening's 2-1 defeat Rayo Vallecano means that Marcelino Garcia Toral's team have taken just eight points from their last seven games -- as the Europa League semifinalists have found competing on two fronts to be a tough challenge.
Six wins in their last eight La Liga games has brought Athletic Bilbao to fifth place and within six points of Villarreal -- after Ernesto Valverde's men eked out a 1-0 win at Malaga at Sunday lunchtime despite having gone to extra-time and penalties when exiting the Europa League last Thursday.
Athletic have already played a remarkable 57 games in all competitions this season, but are showing great determination. They host Atletico on Wednesday in another huge game, while a tiring Villarreal must go to the Bernabeu to face a firing Real Madrid.
5. Relegation battle continues
The weekend's big movers in the relegation battle were Levante, who came back from 1-0 down at home to Espanyol on Friday night to win 2-1. Giuseppe Rossi's fine free kick and Carl Medjani's close range finish gave the Valencia-based side's chances of a survival a huge boost although they remain in 19th spot.
Getafe are now bottom after their 1-5 hammering from Madrid means they have just two points picked up from their last 13 games. New coach Juan Esnaider has a huge job on his hands with just five matches left.
Sporting Gijon remain in 18th position after a 1-1 draw at Las Palmas, which was not a bad result, but not really enough to help their situation. Granada stay in 17th after losing at Atletico, and their home game against Levante on Thursday looks pretty huge.
Rayo's 2-1 win over Villarreal, thanks to Miku's late header, means Paco Jemez's men have moved five points clear of the drop zone with five games to play and can breathe a bit easier now.
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