MADRID: Barcelona remain on top of La Liga with two games remaining as goals from Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez earned a 2-0 win over 10-man Real Betis on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
On a day of high tension when all three title contenders were at one point top of the table, Antoine Griezmann came off the bench to score the winner in Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 win over Rayo Vallecano to remain behind Barca solely due to their inferior head-to-head record.
Gareth Bale’s thunderous header 10 minutes from time kept an under-strength Real Madrid just a point behind the leaders in third in a 1-0 victory at Real Sociedad.
Barca need to win their two remaining games at home to Espanyol and away to Granada to be assured of retaining their title and were given a huge helping hand by Betis despite an unconvincing performance.
“I don’t think either of the other two are going to drop points so we have to win our games,” said Barca boss Luis Enrique.
“We need to concentrate on ourselves, be the best in attack and defense and resolve the game with the belief we have shown today.”
Betis defender Heiko Westermann was deservedly sent-off 10 minutes before half time when he chopped down Rakitic to see his second yellow card in seven minutes.
Rakitic took advantage of more Betis generosity five minutes after half time when he was left with the simple task to slotting into an empty net after German Pezzella and goalkeeper Antonio Adan failed to cut out Lionel Messi’s cross.
Suarez fired straight at Adan when gifted a golden chance by Messi to seal the points 17 minutes from time.
However, the Uruguayan made amends from another sensational Messi through ball eight minutes later to register his 54th goal of the season.
In San Sebastian, Bale inspired a Real Madrid side without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to a 10th straight La Liga win.
“I am happy for him because he has had problems this season with injury, but when is fit you notice,” Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane said of Bale.
“We could have scored earlier in the first-half, but we had to work until the end against a difficult side.
“I am happy with the performance and to get three points once again.”
As well as the absent Ronaldo and Benzema, Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane rested Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Toni Kroos with one eye on the return leg of their Champions League semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday.
Bale was a constant threat in the air as he twice saw powerful headers fly just wide as Madrid completely dominated the hosts before the break.
The visitors continued to press after the break, but Geronimo Rulli looked set to end their title hopes as the Argentine made a brilliant save to deny Bale from another fine Rodriguez cross.
Yet, a week after leading Real back from a two-goal deficit at Rayo Vallecano, Bale made the difference again when he got across his marker to bullet home a header from Lucas Vazquez’s cross.
Atletico boss Diego Simeone also showed his priorities lie with the second leg of their Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich in midweek as he made seven changes to the side that beat the German champions 1-0 on Wednesday.
However, Atletico’s youngsters struggled for the opening 55 minutes until Griezmann rode to the rescue.
The French international made a sensational and instant impact after coming off the bench as he controlled a loose ball on the edge of the area before thrashing a volley into the bottom corner for his 30th goal of the season.
And despite a late Rayo onslaught, Atletico held out to record their 34th clean sheet of the season.
“The important thing was to win and on a personal level I’m happy to score the goal,” Griezmann told Movistar.
“Now we need to rest. We have a great game to come on Tuesday and we’ll try to get a good result there to go through to the final.”