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Sunday April 6, 2014 MYT 6:32:02 AM
Sunday April 6, 2014 MYT 6:35:27 AM
by iain rogers
MADRID (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid remained on course for a surprise La Liga title triumph when Raul Garcia's header secured a 1-0 victory for the leaders at home to Villarreal on Saturday as closest rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid also won.
Lionel Messi struck twice for Barca in a laboured 3-1 home success against bottom side Real Betis as the champions stayed hard on Atletico's heels, a point adrift with six matches left including a clash between the sides at the Nou Camp on the final day of the season.
Third-placed Real are still in the hunt, two points behind Barca, after Gareth Bale smashed in a brilliant long-range effort and Asier Illarramendi scored against his former club in a 4-0 romp at sixth-placed Real Sociedad.
Atletico have 79 points from 32 matches, three more than their tally from last season when they finished third. Barca are second on 78 and Real have 76.
Not since Real and Barca finished tied on 76 points in 2006-07, with Real crowned champions by virtue of a superior head-to-head record, and Sevilla kept pace with Spain's dominant pair down to the wire has there been such a close three-way fight for the title.
Atletico were missing top scorer Diego Costa and playmaker Arda Turan through injury but dispatched seventh-placed Villarreal with an efficient performance in front of their boisterous fans enjoying the club's best campaign since they last won Spain's domestic league in 1996.
Garcia nodded in a Koke corner in the 14th minute at a packed Calderon and the home side comfortably soaked up sustained Villarreal pressure in the second half.
Argentine coach Diego Simeone has transformed Atletico into genuine contenders in Spain and Europe since taking over at the end of 2011 despite the club commanding about a fifth of the resources of wealthier rivals Barca and Real, the world's richest teams by income.
Atletico and Barca are locked at 1-1 in their Champions League quarter-final after Tuesday's first leg at the Nou Camp and play the return in Madrid on Wednesday.
"I am running out of words to continue congratulating the players for their effort and commitment," Simeone told a news conference.
"Now we have to focus on the Champions League, it's important for the club," added the former Argentina captain. "Hopefully we can recover well in these next four days."
Barca were well short of their best at the Nou Camp against a Betis side who showed impressive fight despite being eight points adrift at the bottom.
Messi, who has been on prolific form since returning in January after a two-month injury layoff, scored his first of the game from the penalty spot in the 15th minute after Betis defender Jordi Figueras brought down Alexis Sanchez.
Barca were unable to convert long periods of possession into goals and were fortunate to go 2-0 ahead when Figueras deflected the ball into his own net in the 67th.
Betis set Barca nerves jangling two minutes later when they hit back through substitute Ruben Castro before Messi netted his second four minutes from time after defender Antonio Amaya handled in the area and the referee awarded another penalty.
Goalkeeper Adan saved the Argentina captain's initial shot but he put the rebound into the net for his 25th La Liga goal of the campaign, the same as Atletico's Costa and three fewer than leading marksman Cristiano Ronaldo of Real.
Barca coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference he would not look for excuses for his team's disappointing display.
"The feeling I have is that this game popped up between the two tremendously important games on Tuesday and next Wednesday," added the Argentine.
"We had to win to keep up the pressure on the leaders. We value the result as highly as we possibly can but not the way we played."
Real were without the injured Ronaldo in San Sebastian and it took them until the 45th minute to open the scoring when Illarramendi stabbed in the rebound from a Karim Benzema effort.
Bale, who needed treatment on a gashed knee just before his goal, made it 2-0 in the 67th when he controlled a wayward clearance by Sociedad goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and lashed the ball into the bottom corner.
Centre back Pepe netted Real's third in the 85th and substitute Alvaro Morata made it 4-0 two minutes from time.
"It's always special to return home," Illarramendi, who was roundly whistled by the Sociedad fans every time he touched the ball, said in an interview with Spanish broadcaster Canal Plus.
"We found it tough in the first half but the match opened up in the second half and we made the most of the extra space.
"There are not many games left and we have to win them all if we are to have a chance."
Atletico are guaranteed at least a third-placed finish, and qualification for next season's Champions League, as they are 23 points ahead of fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao before the Basque club's game at Levante on Monday.
In the late kickoff, Rayo Vallecano continued their climb away from danger with a 3-0 win at home to Celta Vigo that lifted them above the Galician club into 11th on 36 points.
Rayo were already 3-0 ahead at their Vallecas stadium in the Madrid suburbs when left back Razvan Rat was dismissed for violent conduct just after the hour.
(Editing by Ed Osmond and Martyn Herman)
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