Messi, Ronaldo genius secures wins

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MADRID Sharp thinking and brilliant execution by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo lifted Barcelona and Real Madrid to wins at Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano respectively on Sunday that maintained Reals 10-point lead over their great rivals at the top of La Liga.

Messi caught the Atletico defence napping to score with a breathtaking 81st-minute free-kick and secure a 2-1 success for Bara, while an audacious Ronaldo back-heel gave Real a 1-0 victory against Madrid neighbours Rayo.

It was a 28th league goal of the campaign for Messi, who succeeded Ronaldo as World Player of the Year and has won the award three times on the trot, leaving him one behind the former Manchester United forward at the top of the La Liga scoring chart.

Messis genius settled an intense battle at the Calderon after Atleticos Radamel Falcao had cancelled out Daniel Alves opening goal.

As the home defence lined up to defend a free-kick wide on the left, Messi noticed Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois out of position and curled a stunning strike over the Belgians head into the far top corner.

The goal gave Bara only their fifth win in 12 games on the road, a poor run of away form that has effectively scuppered their bid for a fourth straight title and put Real within touching distance of a first La Liga title since 2008.

Reals victory at Rayos tiny stadium in the south east of the Spanish in the earlier kick-off equalled the club record of nine straight away wins from the 2009-10 season.

The decisive moment came when Ronaldo pounced on a loose ball at a 54th-minute corner and with his back to goal sent it through a crowd of players into the net.

Mid-table Rayo, hosting their more illustrious neighbours for the first time in nine years, had the best chance of the first half when forward Piti crashed an angled shot past Iker Casillas that hit the inside of a post and bounced along the line.

Real were missing winger Angel Di Maria and striker Karim Benzema, both injured, and struggled to create chances against a resolute Rayo, who were coming into the game on a run of three consecutive wins and were roared on by their flag-waving faithful.

They made Real suffer in the closing stages and squandered three clear chances for an equaliser, first when Sergio Ramos gave the ball away in a dangerous position.

It is easy to drop points at this stadium and we suffered on a difficult pitch, Mourinho said at a news conference.

A league title is won at every venue and in every game. A draw would have been a just result because Rayo were fantastic, he added.

Athletic Bilbao missed a chance to climb above Levante into fourth and a Champions League qualification place when they were held to an entertaining 2-2 draw at improving Villarreal.

The home side, whose season has been wrecked by injuries to key players, took a 10th-minute lead through former Spain midfielder Marcos Senna before goals from Fernando Llorente and Markel Susaeta put the Basque club ahead.

Nilmar equalised in the 68th minute to leave Villarreal in 17th on 27 points and Bilbao in fifth on 34.