MADRID, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Leaders Sevilla continued their poor start to the year when they were held to a 0-0 draw at Villarreal on Saturday opening the door for Barcelona to take charge at the top by the halfway mark of the season.
Sevilla have taken just one point from their first three matches in 2007 and are only three clear of title rivals Barca who have two games in hand.
The Catalans will take over at the top if they beat basement side Gimnastic Tarragona on Sunday but if not they will have another chance to claim the symbolic title of winter champions at Real Betis next Wednesday.
Villarreal, who had only won once in their previous five games, produced one of their best performances of the season in the opening half hour and were unlucky not to be ahead at halftime.
Sevilla were on top for most of the second half, but leading scorer Frederic Kanoute missed a great chance on the hour to put them in front when he sliced the ball wide of the post with just the keeper to beat.
Earlier, Atletico Madrid moved up to joint second place after a 1-0 win over Osasuna who ended the game with just seven men after they had four players sent off in the closing minutes of a bad-tempered match at the Calderon.
Osasuna defender Carlos Cuellar, striker Roberto Soldado, keeper Ricardo and midfielder Raul Garcia were all dismissed in the last 11 minutes.
The win left Atletico on 35 points, level with Barca and Real Madrid who play on Sunday and three behind Sevilla.
Atletico, knocked out of the King's Cup by Osasuna in midweek, looked to have blown their victory chances when captain Fernando Torres fluffed a 79th-minute penalty after being hauled back by Cuellar who was sent off for his troubles.
But Ze Castro spared the Atletico striker's blushes when he steered the ball in from the edge of the area seven minutes from time.
Eighth-placed Osasuna's comeback hopes went up in smoke when Soldado was red-carded for use of the elbow three minutes from time.
Ricardo followed him down the tunnel after picking up a second yellow card for time wasting while Garcia was dismissed for a reckless challenge on Yourkas Seitaridis.
The match was also marred by a repetition of racist abuse at the Calderon, this time directed against Osasuna's Cameroon striker Pierre Webo.
Atletico have been fined for racist abuse on several occasions in recent seasons.