Madrid: A stylish Barcelona sent a message to Real Madrid that they are ready to fight to keep their La Liga title after cruising to a 4-0 win over Zaragoza - even if Real responded with a hard-fought 3-2 success over Valencia to preserve their three-point cushion. (Agencies)
The pressure was on Real, who had Barcelona breathing down their necks after their earlier 4-0 win over Zaragoza but the Meringues produced a battling display against a Valencia side who pushed them all the way after the break.
Real have been setting the pace at the top of the table and opened up a three-point lead before the international break when a lacklustre Barcelona were lucky to draw away to Athletic Bilbao.
But in front of a packed Nou Camp, Barca gave a rendition of attacking football, pressing forward from the start against a Zaragoza side who have only won two games all season.
Barca were finding it difficult to find a cutting edge though until they managed it in a way not associated with Barca's passing football, as Gerard Pique headed home a Xavi Hernandez free-kick.
Lionel Messi was a doubt until the last minute following a draining trip to play for Argentina but he was given the nod to play and was at his tantalising best.
He should have scored when he tried a flamboyant effort in front of the keeper instead of making sure but he made no mistake two minutes before half time, finishing clinically.
Carlos Puyol knocked in a scrappy third while David Villa completed a comprehensive win with a header 15 minutes from the end
"Messi is a player who always causes problems and it was the same here. He said he was okay to play and so we decided to start him and it paid off. I was very pleased with the performance from the players and how well we do this season is own to them," said
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who also backed Villa, initially left on the bench.
"I have a lot of confidence in him but I decided that for this game after the international games it would be better to give him a break," Guardiola said.
Real's championship credentials were closely examined by Valencia, who may could slide off third spot Sunday if Levante can see off Atletico Madrid.
Karim Bewnzema gave Real a 20th-minute lead and Sergio Ramos made it 2-0, heading in with 18 minutes left.
But former Real striker Roberto Soldado pulled one back before Cristiano Ronaldo burst through to finish from an acute angle on 79 minutes after a mistake from Valencia keeper Diego Alves, who recklessly came off his line.
Soldado responded with a second but to no avail in a frantic finale which saw the forward have a goal disallowed in the 89th minute for offside, while Valencia, on a roll of four straight wins beforehand, also had a penalty claim turned down in injury time as Jose Mourinho's men held on for victory.
A Borja Valero strike meanwhile gave injury-plagued Villarreal a 1-0 victory over Real Betis whose slump continues as they have now won just once in seven games.
Madrid: A stylish Barcelona sent a message to Real Madrid that they are ready to fight to keep their La Liga title after cruising to a 4-0 win over Zaragoza - even if Real responded with a hard-fought 3-2 success over Valencia to preserve their three-point cushion.