Ibrahimovic, Higuain fire Barca and Real
Zlatan Ibrahimovic smashed in a penalty to give La Liga leaders Barcelona a 1-0 home win over Espanyol on Saturday while Real Madrid kept pace at the top when Gonzalo Higuain struck twice in a 3-2 win at Valencia.
Champions Barcelona and second-placed Real Madrid were missing key players, with Lionel Messi out of the Catalan derby due to an ankle sprain and the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo and injured Kaka absent for the Valencia clash.
After a tight first half at the Mestalla, Real's Argentina striker Higuain broke the deadlock in the 54th minute with a header from Karim Benzema's cross before league top scorer David Villa equalised with his 12th of the season on the hour.
Marcelo set Higuain up to drive home his second five minutes later, Valencia substitute Joaquin made it 2-2 after 80 minutes but Real defender Ezequiel Garay, who replaced the injured Pepe just before the break, headed the winner three minutes later.
"It was a very important victory against one of our direct rivals," Higuain said in a television interview.
Barca top the standings on 39 points from 15 matches, five ahead of Real who have a game in hand. Valencia are third with 28 and Sevilla, who play at Sporting Gijon on Sunday, are a further point back in fourth.
Higuain's Argentina team mate Messi was injured in Wednesday's Champions League victory at Dynamo Kiev, but was in the Nou Camp earlier on Saturday to show the fans the Ballon d'Or award he won this month.
His replacement, Pedro, fluffed a chance to put Barca ahead in the 14th minute when he robbed Francisco Chica but skewed his shot wide with Carlos Kameni's goal at his mercy.
Victor Valdes had to be alert to keep out Joan Verdu's dipping strike seconds later before Kameni acrobatically palmed away Thierry Henry's low effort.
Sweden striker Ibrahimovic converted a penalty in the 39th, after Baena impeded Xavi, giving Kameni no chance with a drive high into the net for his 11th goal of the season.
Espanyol put up more of a fight in a scrappy second half but were unable to find an equaliser and Ibrahimovic and Gerard Pique went close to doubling Barca's lead.
Barca's win equalled the club record of 15 consecutive matches undefeated set under Terry Venables at the start of the 1984/85 season.
Earlier on Saturday, teenage striker Iker Muniain came off the bench to inspire Athletic Bilbao to a 2-1 win at Real Zaragoza, increasing the pressure on home coach Marcelino.
The 16-year-old Muniain replaced Fernando Llorente in the 58th minute and his cross three minutes later was weighted perfectly for defender Mikel San Jose to power a header into the top corner past goalkeeper Javier Lopez Vallejo.
Midfielder Markel Susaeta netted the Basque club's second with nine minutes left after picking up Muniain's precise through ball before defender Carlos Diogo struck from distance for the home side in added time.
The defeat, which leaves Zaragoza 17th in the standings out of 20, piles more pressure on Marcelino, who was quoted as saying on Saturday he had not yet been sacked only because of the backing he had been given by the squad.
"I am doomed because I no longer have the confidence of the club," Marcelino said in the Marca newspaper and other media.