By Richard Martin
MADRID (Reuters) – Barcelona overcame the absence of Lionel Messi to win 2-0 at basement club Malaga on Saturday as goals from Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho sent the Catalans 11 points clear at the top of La Liga while Real Madrid left it late to win 2-1 at Eibar.
Messi missed a league game for the first time this season so he could attend the birth of his third son Ciro. However, Barca barely needed their talisman against freefalling Malaga, who had striker Samu Garcia sent off after half an hour and slumped to a seventh consecutive league defeat.
Suarez headed home a looping cross from Jordi Alba to give Barca the lead in the 15th minute and his former Liverpool team mate Coutinho struck the second in the 28th with a backheel from close range after an impressive dribble from Ousmane Dembele.
Malaga did manage to create two chances in the first half but they could not test Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Malaga goalkeeper Roberto Jimenez was kept busy at the other end and did well to thwart Paulinho, Samuel Umtiti and Dembele, while Suarez picked up a booking that means he is suspended for Barca’s next game against Athletic Bilbao.
Barca are still unbeaten in the league and lead the standings with 72 points, 11 clear of Atletico Madrid who host Celta Vigo on Sunday. Real are third on 57 after seeing off dogged Eibar with two strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo.
The prolific Portuguese scored for the seventh successive game in all competitions by blasting into the net in the 34th minute after chesting down a long ball by Luka Modric. Ivan Ramis pulled one back for Eibar when he outjumped Sergio Ramos to head home from a corner in the 50th.
The irrepressible Ronaldo had the final say, however, meeting a cross from Dani Carvajal in the area and powering the ball beyond the Serbian goalkeeper in the 84th minute, scoring a 13th goal in his last seven games in all competitions.
“FROM ANOTHER GALAXY”
Ronaldo has roared back from a feeble start to the season, when he scored just once in his first eight league games, to reach 18 goals in the campaign.
“He’s from another galaxy,” Real coach Zinedine Zidane said of Ronaldo.
“He knows he’s going to score, he’s unique and special. His stats speak for him. And he’s our player. He’s always positive and if he scores twice, he wants to score a third.”
Valencia tightened their grip on fourth place in the standings and took a giant leap towards returning to the Champions League by winning 2-0 at Sevilla, opening up an 11-point gap with the Andalusians in fifth place.
Spain international Rodrigo Moreno scored either side of halftime to inflict a third home defeat in little more than two months on Sevilla, whose best chance of getting back into Europe’s elite competition now likely rests on them winning the tournament.
Vincenzo Montella’s side visit Manchester United on Tuesday in a last-16 second leg, with the tie finely balanced at 0-0.
Also on Saturday, struggling Levante snapped a run of 15 games without a win by beating Getafe 1-0 away from home in coach Paco Lopez’s first game in charge, lifting his side four points above the relegation zone.
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)