Barcelona’s Gerard Pique (top), heads the ball above Valencia’s Adil Rami from France during their La Liga soccer match at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, Spain, Feb 3. (AP)
Messi penalty rescues Barcelona at Valencia Ronaldo own goal sends Real to shock defeat

MADRID, Feb 3, (Agencies): A Lionel Messi penalty rescued Barcelona as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Valencia but the league leaders still maintiain a 12 point advantage at the top of the table. The four-time World Player of the Year extended his record scoring run to 12 matches in the league with a penalty after 39 minutes with Valencia having taken the lead through Ever Banega. Although Barca won their last league game at home to Osasuna, they lost a fortnight ago against Real Sociedad and this was a lacklustre display at the Mestalla. Like Real Madrid who lost to Granada on Saturday night, Barca seemed to be suffering the effects of their 1-1 Spanish Cup semi-final first-leg but they still maintain a comfortable advantage over second placed Atletico Madrid who play Real Betis later on Sunday.

Barcelona rested captain Carles Puyol as former Livepool player Javier Mascherano was thrown into central defence alongside Gerard Pique while Andres Iniesta was once again chosen in attack instead of David Villa and Alexis Sanchez. Apart from a 5-0 thumping by Real Madrid and their elimination by the same side in the domestic Cup, Valencia have been in good form with four wins from five matches in the league. While Barca probed in typical fashion looking for an opening, Valencia broke with speed down the wings with Jose Guardado and Juan Bernat. Guardado had a snapshot which which went wide in an even contest and another break from the home side saw Roberto Soldado brought down by Mascherano after 22 minutes while the resulting free-kick was fired into the wall by Tino Costa.

Valencia were snapping at the heels of the Barca midfielders who were looking uncomfortable and Valencia got the breakthrough from Banega. Pique cleared a cross to the Argentine who had time in the centre of the area to bring the ball down and pick his spot in the corner. Barca appeared in trouble but then they won a penalty as Joao Pereira clipped Pedro Rodriguez on the edge of the area and Messi finished with aplomb from the spot. It seemed to inspire Barca who raised their tempo towards half-time but it was Valencia who went nearest to scoring in the dying minutes with a long range strike from Guardado which was palmed away by keeper Victor Valdes.

Earlier Malaga could only draw 1-1 with Zaragoza and have now just one win from five games as they compete for a top four finish, while Sevilla beat Rayo Vallecano 2-1. In Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career to send Real Madrid to a shock 1-0 defeat at lowly Granada in La Liga on Saturday, further damaging their already slim hopes of retaining the title. Ronaldo has scored 21 league goals this season but headed into his own net at a corner in the 22nd minute and his side rarely threatened after that in the face of resolute opposition. The result left the champions 15 points adrift of leaders Barcelona, who can extend their advantage over their great rivals to 18 with a win at Valencia on Sunday.

Real have 43 points from 22 games and remain four points behind second-placed Atletico Madrid, who host Real Betis on Sunday. “We played a bad game, the responsibility is mine,” Real coach Jose Mourinho told a post-match news conference. “The result bothers me. The first half was horrible, and although we improved in the second half, it wasn’t enough. “Granada defended with heart and soul, and a lot of motivation, and it was a great night of football for them.” Wednesday’s King’s Cup semi-final first leg at home to Barca, when Real recovered to grab a 1-1 draw, seemed to have taken its toll as Mourinho’s side struggled to get going.

Their hard-running hosts, inspired by a change of coach from Juan Antonio Anquela to Lucas Alcaraz on Wednesday, took advantage of a familiar failing for Real this season when they went ahead at a corner.
Ronaldo rose at the near post and skimmed the ball past Diego Lopez and into the roof of his own net.
The visitors slowly found their feet but failed to register a single shot on target before halftime. Mourinho threw on forwards Karim Benzema and Jose Callejon in a double substitution to try and pep up his team, and Ronaldo became more involved in the game. The Portugal forward tested goalkeeper Tono on a few occasions but it was Callejon and Benzema who had the best chance between them to level in the 84th. Callejon dribbled into the area and was denied by Tono but when the ball broke to Benzema he scuffed his shot wide of the far post in front of an open goal.

Real have now lost five games on the road this season, four of them in Andalusia after setbacks at Sevilla, Real Betis, Malaga and Granada. The other one they lost at Getafe. Levante missed the chance to move into the Champions League places when they lost 3-2 at improving Espanyol. An own-goal from Vicente Iborra put the visitors behind just before the break. Ruben Garcia headed Levante level after an error in the home defence, but Javier Aguirre’s Espanyol struck twice in two minutes to seal the win. Sergio Garcia crossed for Christian Stuani to head Espanyol’s second, and then scored from the edge of the area before Obafemi Martins burst clear to pull one back for Levante at the end.

Troubled Deportivo La Coruna remain rooted to the foot of the standings after a 3-1 defeat at Getafe, despite taking the lead against 10 men at the Coliseum. Home keeper Miguel Angel Moya was sent off after 10 minutes and Pizzi netted with a penalty but Diego Castro levelled with another spot kick at the other end in the 25th. Depor had midfielder Abel Aguilar sent off in the 71st and Getafe took all the points when Alvaro Vazquez and Adrian Colunga grabbed well-taken goals near the end Osasuna climbed out of the bottom three with a 1-0 home win over Celta Vigo in the day’s other game.

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