Lionel Messi's late goal seals Barcelona win in Valencia• Champions 10 points ahead of Real Madrid after 1-0 win
Champions 10 points ahead of Real Madrid after 1-0 win
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 2 March 2011 23.55 GMT
Lionel Messi missed a slew of chances before squeezing home a late strike to give Barcelona a 1-0 win at Valencia, third in La Liga, and stretch the champions' lead over Real Madrid to 10 points.
With Barça looking like they might drop points for only the fourth time this season, Messi struck a low shot in the 77th minute at the Mestalla that spun just inside the post off the outstretched arm of the Valencia goalkeeper Vicente Guaita.
It was the World Player of the Year's 27th league goal of the season and lifted Barça to 71 points from 26 matches. They have won 12 of their 13 away matches, drawing last month at Sporting Gijon in their only slip-up on the road.
Real can trim the gap to seven points with a win at Málaga on Thursday, when the Andalucian club's coach Manuel Pellegrini returns to the Bernabéu to face the man who replaced him at Real at the end of last season, José Mourinho. Another of Pellegrini's former clubs, Villarreal, breathed life into their bid for a place in next season's Champions League when Giuseppe Rossi struck to give them a 1-0 home win over the promoted Hercules.
The Italy forward sped on to Cani's through-ball in the 21st minute at the Madrigal and finished past Juan Calatayud to lift Villarreal to 50 points from 26 matches, one behind Valencia. Juan Carlos Garrido's Villarreal side, who are still alive in the Europa League, had lost two and drawn two of their last four league matches.
The Europa League champions Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao stumbled in their campaigns for a European berth. Atletico, who have won only two and lost five of their 10 league matches this year, were held to a 1-1 draw at city rivals Getafe and Bilbao squandered the lead to lose 2-1 at Real Zaragoza.
Atletico are eighth on 35 points, three behind Bilbao and Sevilla, who beat visiting Sporting Gijon 3-0 on Tuesday. Espanyol lost 2-1 at home to Real Mallorca on Tuesday and remain fifth on 40 points.