Barcelona make statement, Ronaldo on song, Neville struggling at Valencia
Five thoughts gleaned from the weekend's action, as Barcelona picked up a big win at the top of La Liga, while Zinedine Zidane continued his fine work at Real Madrid and Gary Neville struggled again.
1. Barca come through tough January very, very well
Atletico Madrid were the better team for much of what was a pretty strange game at the Camp Nou on Saturday afternoon, but Barcelona's 2-1 win put them in full control of the La Liga title race.
Atletico deservedly went 1-0 up early on, and after Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez had scored and Filipe Luis and Diego Godin been sent off, Diego Simeone's side stayed in the game. In the 89th minute visiting keeper Jan Oblak even went forward to join his eight outfield teammates for a late free kick tossed into the Barca box, as they sought the unlikeliest of equalisers. But it did not go as planned.
Simeone claimed afterwards he was taking a lot of positives from the game, but it was Barca who took the three points. During an extra-busy January schedule, when the Blaugrana squad strength and fitness have been tested, it was a big win.
Barca may have only shown their best form in short bursts, but they have won nine and drawn one of 10 games since returning from December's World Club Cup in Japan, stretching their unbeaten run to 26 matches in all competitions. Coach Luis Enrique is now having to dampen down expectations of a second successive Treble.
"It's true this is an important result for us, against our closest rival," he said on Saturday. "Every game, whoever is the rival, presents its difficulties. There is still a lot of La Liga to play."
2. Madrid say their hard work is paying off
Madrid were always in control against Espanyol on Sunday evening -- as they were in Zinedine Zidane's two other home games so far as coach -- and the 6-0 final score was a fair reflection of Los Blancos' dominance.
Most striking maybe was Cristiano Ronaldo's goal just before the break, when the Portuguese star took the ball near the halfway line, drove towards the penalty area, tricked a couple of defenders and hammered an unstoppable 20 yard effort into the net.
Such thrilling, powerful solo goals used to come regularly for Ronaldo, but over the last couple of years he has become more of a penalty-box predator. Zidane had said before the match that what the 30-year-old had been missing lately was extra physical work to be at his fittest.
The new coach been using Madrid's lighter January schedule, without Copa del Rey commitments, to give his players what he has called a "mini-preseason." Ronaldo says the results are paying off: "Zizou has done phenomenal work, we feel better, fitter. You can see the results on pitch, we won well. It has been a positive month. We must continue like this."
3. Things clicking into place in European spots
A seventh goal of season from Villarreal midfielder, captain and team leader Bruno Soriano was enough for a 1-0 win at home to Granada -- which kept his side eight points ahead of the rest in the race for the final Champions League spot.
Sevilla are now in fifth place with their 3-1 defeat of Levante at lunchtime on Sunday being Unai Emery's side's 10th win on the trot in front of their own fans.
Also on an impressive run is Inaki Williams -- his eighth goal of the season [his first header] brought a win 1-0 at Getafe on Saturday evening and pushed Athletic Bilbao up to sixth spot.
Celta Vigo, Eibar, Deportivo La Coruna -- and a fast rising Malaga -- are not out of it yet. But it now looks pretty likely that Villarreal will get fourth, with Sevilla and Athletic favourites for the direct Europa League places.
4. Nothing going right for Neville in La Liga
Things are very much not going as planned for Gary Neville at Valencia, in La Liga at least, with Sunday afternoon's 1-0 home defeat to Sporting Gijon stretching the former Manchester United defender's run without a league win to eight games.
Sporting's goal came from a penalty converted by Tonny Sanabria, after midfielder Danilo Barbosa had foolishly clipped the heels of visiting winger Jony inside the box. The most obvious culprit was striker Alvaro Negredo -- who missed three clear chances, including scooping over a gaping goal from just eight yards late on. But although the visitors had rode their luck at times, they also looked a better organised and more confident outfit all round.
Neville was again claiming his team had actually played very well, while angrily fending off questions over his future in the Mestalla press room after the game. Meanwhile, outside the stadium, local police had to set up a cordon to keep fans away from the players cars as they left.
5. Las Palmas on the rise
Besides Sporting, the only other team in the bottom half to win over the weekend were UD Las Palmas, who beat Celta Vigo 2-1 on Sunday afternoon.
A late goal from Willian Jose [former Real Madrid youth team striker on loan from Uruguayan feeder club Deportivo Maldonado] saw off Celta -- who had been reduced to 10 men after Fabian Orellana saw a second yellow for diving.
Las Palmas exited the Copa del Rey to Valencia just last week, but their La Liga form is much better. A fourth win in their last seven at the Estadio Gran Canaria has lifted Quique Setien's team three places out of the relegation zone -- and they look well set to avoid the drop.