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Casemiro a Real hero, Messi inspires Barca, Atleti joy, Aspas' derby delight

Here's five quick thoughts from the weekend's action in La Liga as Real Madrid remain just ahead of Barcelona at the top while Atletico Madrid easily overcame Sevilla in the "best of the rest" clash.

1. Casemiro the hero? Really?

Although Karim Benzema was probably Real Madrid's best player in the 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, holding midfielder Casemiro symbolised the effort made by Zinedine Zidane's side to maintain their two point gap atop La Liga, with a game still in hand.

The Brazilian stood strong in a battle against Athletic's fearsome duo of Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia, making eight tackles and committing four fouls, while being fouled six times himself. Madrid needed such a physical presence against Athletic more than they needed playmaker Luka Modric and the ageing Cristiano Ronaldo, who were both substituted in the second half.

"We suffered a lot, but played with personality," Zidane said afterwards. "It was very important to get the points."

Casemiro netted the winner, popping up at the right time when Ronaldo flicked on a corner, showing composure to beat keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga from close range.

"Golden Goal," said AS' front page on Sunday morning. "Casemiro's strike against a good Athletic could be worth half a Liga."

It was striking to see the one-time bit-part player as AS' cover star and relatively little made of Ronaldo's angry reaction to being substituted with the game in the balance, or Zidane's baffling substitutions.

Whether the richest club in the world should be so reliant on a hard tackling midfielder to score winning goals is another question.

Lionel Messi was twice on target as Barcelona claimed three points.
It was a six-goal thriller at the Camp Nou as Barcelona overcame Valencia.

2. Barca doing it the fun way

There was plenty of drama at Camp Nou as Barcelona won 4-2 in a fascinating encounter against Valencia -- with on-loan Munir El Haddadi netting against his parent club.

Luis Enrique's men started quickly in attack, but were caught out at the back regularly throughout the first half. A 15-minute spell then brought two goals for each side and a red card for Valencia's on loan defender Eliaquim Mangala, who had started the excitement by heading his team in front.

Even with 10 men, Valencia continued to trouble Barca's 3-4-3, regularly finding holes around the three centre-backs. Munir then scored against Luis Enrique's side in first half stoppage time to crank up the pressure on the hosts. 

But Lionel Messi put Barcelona in front with a fierce right footed drive for his second of the game (and 25th of the season in La Liga) and Andre Gomes knocked home from Neymar's unselfish assist late on.

Barca could easily have won by more, but they never seemed fully in control. The evidence of recent games suggests Luis Enrique's last few months in charge are going to be exciting.

3. Simeone enjoys getting one over on Sampaoli

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone was a very happy man at his postmatch news conference following Sunday afternoon's 3-1 win at home to Sevilla.

Earlier, his team had completely overcome a physically and mentally exhausted Sevilla team, with Antoine Griezmann the star again as he assisted the first for Diego Godin and then scored the second with a superb 25-yard free kick. Koke and Joaquin Correa then swapped late goals, but the result was never in doubt.

Simeone rarely gives too much away in front of the media, but he was beaming as he spoke about his team's "best performance of the season" and being "on the right path" for the most important part of the season.

In-form Atletico now look big favourites to finish third, as they closed to within two points of an ailing Sevilla who looked demoralised following their Champions League exit to Leicester.

There was also a sense that Simeone had personally enjoyed getting one over on his fellow Argentine Jorge Sampaoli.

"Sevilla have had a magnificent season, been praised by everyone in the media," he said. "So the result is even sweeter for Atletico today."

Antoine Griezmann celebrates his goal against Sevilla.
Sevilla's nightmare week continued with defeat to Atletico Madrid.

4. Aspas enjoys this Galician derby

Celta Vigo appeared up against it when visiting neighbours Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday evening, having been in Russia on Thursday night eliminating Krasnodar from the Europa League, and with new Depor coach Pepe Mel unbeaten in four games including home clashes with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

On current form, however, nothing can stop Celta's talisman Iago Aspas. The local lad has a mixed history around Galician derbies, including pre-game insults in the media when the teams were both in La Segunda, and a red card for a headbutt at Riazor back in 2013. But just when it seemed Depor were on top and heading for victory, Aspas knocked home Claudio Beauvue's curling cross for a late winner.

No Galician had scored for Celta at Riazor in La Liga since 1971. And few would dare, as Aspas did, to then celebrate the goal right in front of the Riazor Blues Ultras.

Of the fiercely proud Celta fan's 22 goals in 39 games this season, this was surely the one he enjoyed the most.

5. As good as it gets for Las Palmas

Las Palmas sit 12th after Friday evening's 1-0 victory over Villarreal. They appear safe and look unlikely to get sucked into the relegation zone. Such mid-table mediocrity is likely to be as good as it gets for the Canary Islanders, after coach Quique Setien confirmed over the weekend that he was leaving in the summer.

Las Palmas had just returned to the top flight after 13 years away and were second bottom of the table in October 2015 when Setien replaced Paco Herrera and got his first chance to coach in the Primera Division. He leaves with the team firmly established among the elite -- as well as being many neutrals' favourites thanks to an attractive brand of football which also gets results.

Setien will have no trouble finding another job in the Primera Division, but the club he leaves are unlikely to have things so good again for a long time.

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


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