Tight at the top of La Liga with Real, Barca, Atletico, Sevilla all contenders
Five things we learned after another extra dramatic round of La Liga action -- with four different competition leaders on Sunday, and Real Madrid finishing the weekend top.
1. Accidental leaders
Real Madrid kicked off last of La Liga's games Sunday -- knowing that three points at home to Athletic Bilbao would see Zinedine Zidane's team jump from fifth to first place in the standings.
Karim Benzema capitalised on a slip by Athletic's third-choice left-back Enric Saborit to open the scoring early. But a patched-up Los Leones side, missing six regular starters including top-scorer Aritz Aduriz, soon equalised through Sabin Merino and had the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu very worried.
With Cristiano Ronaldo having another frustrating evening -- 11 shots at goal without scoring -- Madrid seemed set for a third straight La Liga draw at home. Then substitute Alvaro Morata bundled home Gareth Bale's cross, at the second attempt, to put his side back in front.
Even still, Athletic's Inaki Williams had a golden chance for 2-2 but fluffed it completely.
With his side now top of the table again, Zidane said afterwards it was "normal" for them to "suffer" as there are no easy games anymore.
But even the usually supportive Marca said Madrid were an "accidental leader" of the table, after a "calamitous performance." Los Blancos will have to play much much better to stay there -- with the Derbi against Atletico Madrid and Clasico at Barcelona looming into view.
2. Hitchcock at Mestalla
Action packed does not even begin to describe Barcelona's visit to Valencia on Saturday afternoon. There were various violent challenges by Valencia players unpunished, an apparently offside Barca goal allowed, a serious injury to Blaugrana skipper Andres Iniesta, Valencia denied a penalty and Sergio Busquets let off a second yellow card. And that was all before half-time.
"Hitchock at Mestalla" summed up the headline in Sunday's AS report on a match which also included on-loan Munir El Haddadi spurring a stirring Valencia comeback after the break, and home fans throwing a bottle at Barca players celebrating their last gasp winning goal in a 3-2 victory.
"Such bad refereeing cannot be allowed -- [referee Alberto] Undiano Mallenco should be ashamed," Valencia sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch raged after Messi had showed admirable cool to beat penalty expert Diego Alves from the spot in the 93rd minute.
Luis Enrique's side are third now, two points behind Madrid, but winning like this without Iniesta and the also injured Gerard Pique felt like a big statement from them.
3. N'Zonzi helps Sampaoli trump Simeone
Diego Simeone had never lost a game against Sevilla in his five and a half years in charge of Atletico Madrid. Until Sunday afternoon when his first meeting with new Rojiblanco coach and fellow Argentine Jorge Sampaoli ended with Steven N'Zonzi scoring the only goal.
The game at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan was played at a fierce pace, and the tactical battle swung back and forth. Simeone had used all three substitutes by minute 65 -- but Sampaoli's side went ahead seven minutes later when Luciano Vietto [on loan from Atletico where he was unwanted] came deep and reversed a pass behind the defence for N'Zonzi to sprint clear and coolly finish past Jan Oblak.
Manchester City outcast Samir Nasri was also outstanding in a superb team performance by Sevilla, who are now second in the table, just one point behind Madrid. Simeone said pre-game that Sampaoli's supercharged team were in the title race, and Sunday suggested they are the real deal. Meanwhile, with things so tight at the top, Atletico started the weekend first, but finished it fifth.
4. Boateng screamer but Setien's anniversary ends unhappily
Goal of the weekend, and possibly the season so far, came from Las Palmas at Villarreal on Sunday evening.
The Canary Islanders' new star Kevin Prince Boateng threw himself into the air to scissor kick home a spectacular volley, from an even more spectacular Tana back-heel flick assist, after Jonathan Viera's lovely scooped pass over the top of the Villarreal defence.
The third goal of the season from former Germany international Boateng, signed on a free from AC Milan last summer, was also a lovely way to mark Quique Setien's one year anniversary as Las Palmas coach.
Villarreal were not keen to join the party however, and Nicola Sansone's debatable penalty brought the teams level, before Cedric Bakambu won the game by slotting home coolly in the 92nd minute. The Yellow Submarine remain unbeaten in La Liga and are still right up there with the leaders.
5. Poyet escapes, for now
Real Betis went to Osasuna on Friday night with coach Gustavo Poyet rumoured to be one more bad result away from the sack.
Poyet made four changes to his XI, including removing top scorer Ruben Castro from the left wing, where he is apparently not happy to be fielded, and sitting the popular veteran on the bench.
Felipe Gutierrez's 91st minute long range free kick, which Osasuna goalkeeper Nauzet Perez really should have saved, gave Betis a 2-1 win which was barely deserved. Nauzet had earlier been partly at fault for Joaquin's cleverly taken opener for the Seville-based side.
"No matter what people think, we are building something, trying to give Betis what it deserves," Poyet said afterwards.
The feisty Uruguayan can relax a bit now, with his team having climbed towards mid-table, but the locals will need more convincing.
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