Free-scoring Neymar hit a double as Barcelona beat Villarreal 2-1 to move three points clear at the top of La Liga while 10-man Real Madrid lost ground as they were held to a 2-2 draw at Osasuna after Sergio Ramos was sent off.
Brazil forward Neymar,who got a treble in a 6-1 Champions League win over Celtic in midweek,scored with a first-half penalty and then put Barca back in front late on after Mateo Musacchio headed the visitors level early in the second period.
The Catalan side are now on 43 points,three more than Atletico Madrid who host Valencia on Sunday,and five in front of rivals Real Madrid who fought back from two goals down to claim a draw after being reduced to 10 men in the 44th minute.
Two first-half headers from Oriol Riera gave Osasuna the advantage but Isco pulled a goal back before the break and a Pepe header salvaged a draw a minute after the home side had Francisco Silva sent off in the 79th minute.
Barca coach Gerardo Martino rotated his squad and Alex Song,who came in for Xavi,was inches away from breaking the deadlock against Villarreal with only a few minutes gone but his volley cannoned against the bar and back into play from a tight angle.
Villarreal have excelled this season by attacking but,missing key players Bruno Soriano and Cani,they resorted to a defensive formation with Giovani dos Santos alone in attack.
The home side had trouble breaking them down but were helped with a penalty for handball by Mario Perez. Neymar,who has started scoring in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi,kept his cool to send keeper Sergio Asenjo the wrong way.
Villarreal were forced to open up in search of the equaliser and Musacchio caught the Barca defence dozing as he headed the ball home from a corner after the restart.
Cesc Fabregas missed a good chance before Alexis Sanchez broke the offside trap and found Neymar who scored from close range. Neymar was inches away from getting his second successive hat-trick in injury time with a shot which grazed the crossbar.
“This performance has made me the happiest yet as it follows on from the good performances against Cartagena (4-1 win in the King’s Cup) and Celtic,and we were against a strong Villarreal side,” Barca coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference.
“We are on a good run but I always think we are able to improve. It wasn’t always easy for us and that’s not a bad thing either as it is something that you can learn from.
“Villarreal knew how to wait and attack the spaces while later in the game they were able to pressure us.
“Winning like that gives confidence to the players and it’s only a shame that the (Christmas) break is coming up.”
Real seemed ready to seize the chance to keep the pressure on the leaders as Carlo Ancelotti’s side began confidently,having won their last five league games,scoring 24 goals,but they were undone by two first-half headers from Oriol Riera.
Sergio Ramos,whose discipline has been questioned,was just returning from suspension but saw red again after 43 minutes. But despite Real’s numerical disadvantage,Isco pulled a goal back on the stroke of halftime to give the visitors hope.
The ineffective Bale was taken off 10 minutes into the second half as they searched for an equaliser that eventually came from a Pepe header a minute after Osasuna were reduced to 10 men with Francisco Silva’s dismissal in the 79th minute.
Bale,a 100 million euros ($137.30 million) signing,scored a hat-trick in his last league game against Valladolid but was unable to make an impact against Osasuna who also managed to earn a draw against Barcelona earlier in the season.
“The first 20 minutes were very good and it is incredible that we went 2-0 down and had ten men,” Ancelotti told a news conference. “We responded well but we suffered a lot.”
“We were showing quality and rhythm and we lost control after the first goal but we did show character and the right attitude to battle back.”
Real zipped the ball around with pace and confidence early on with Osasuna at full stretch to contain Cristiano Ronaldo,who dragged an early shot wide,and striker Karim Benzema.
So it was a shock when Osasuna took the lead with Riera left totally unmarked to head in Marc Bertran’s cross.
The goal took the wind out of Real and they again failed to mark properly when Damia Abella won a header which keeper Diego Lopez beat away,only for Riera to nod in the rebound.
It went from bad to worse as Ramos then received a second yellow card for a foul on Roberto Torres.
Isco got Real back into the match,finding the corner with a drive from the edge of the area.
Bale was then replaced by Angel Di Maria after the restart and it was Osasuna who looked more like scoring again.
The match changed,however,when Silva was dismissed for a foul on Ronaldo and Isco’s free kick was headed in by Pepe.
In Saturday’s late game,a Roque Santa Cruz header gave Bernd Schuster’s misfiring Malaga side a 1-0 win over visiting Getafe to put them five points above the relegation zone.
Mid-table Granada won 2-0 at lowly Rayo Vallecano with goals in either half from Fran Rico and Riki.