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Barca quell unrest to stay top

BARCELONA CHEERSMADRID, January 27 – Barcelona put a stressful week off the field after the resignation of club president Sandro Rosell behind them to move back to the top of La Liga with a 3-0 win over Malaga on Sunday.

With new president Josep Maria Bartomeu watching on from the directors’ box, Gerard Pique swept home the opener from Xavi’s corner five minutes before half-time.

Pedro Rodriguez then made the game safe with a neat turn and finish from Lionel Messi’s pass 10 minutes after the restart.

Alexis Sanchez slotted home the third moments later from Pedro’s cross for his 12th goal of the season.

However, it was to be another frustrating evening for Messi in front of goal as his La Liga goal drought stretched to eight games.

Atletico Madrid remain level on 54 points with the Catalans as they were 4-2 victors at Rayo Vallecano earlier on Sunday with both leaders a point ahead of third-placed Real Madrid.

Victory ensured Barca continued their record run of finishing top of the table for 59 consecutive rounds of league games and Pique hailed his side’s ability to ignore off field distractions once they enter the pitch.

“Despite going through the difficult times we have had over the past 18 months, we have still always managed to maintain our lead,” he told Spanish TV station Canal Plus.

“That means we have a team that is vey compact, solid and wants to remain up there for as long as possible.”

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And the Spanish international refuted suggestions that Messi was still to find his best form since returning from a hamstring injury, despite nearing 600 minutes of league play without finding the net.

“Leo scores a lot of goals, but he also offers many other things. When he doesn’t score, like today or against Levante, he gives assists and offers a lot to our play.”

Instead of the Argentine, it was Pique who was in the right place to open the scoring as he fired home Sanchez’s knockdown for his second goal in as many league games.

Willy Caballero kept the hosts at bay at the beginning of the second period as he made fine saves from Sanchez and Fabregas, whilst Pique headed another Xavi corner off the post.

Pedro finally found a way past the Argentine keeper as he received Messi’s pass before cutting inside to curl the ball accurately into the bottom corner.

Another Messi dash started the move that led to the third goal as he again fed Pedro and this time he squared for Sanchez to tap home.

Atletico kept up the pressure on Barca with a comfortable win of their own at struggling Rayo.

David Villa put the visitors in front after just eight minutes with his 11th goal of the season, but Diego Simeone’s men were thankful to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois moments later as he saved Jonathan Viera’s penalty.

Arda Turan doubled Atletico’s advantage at the end of a fine team move involving Diego Costa and Jose Sosa before Viera’s deflected strike had briefly given Rayo hope.

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The visitors restored their two-goal cushion before half-time, though, as Turan slotted home Gabi’s free-kick from a tight angle at the back post.

Saul Niguez’s then put through his own net under pressure from Costa to make it 4-1 before Joaquin Larrivey’s headed consolation rounded off the scoring.

With top-scorer Costa still to score in seven games in 2014, Villa’s return to goalscoring form has come just at the right time and he slotted away the opener confidently from Costa’s unselfish cut-back.

And Spain’s all-time leading scorer was delighted to net his second goal in as many league games.

“I am very happy to be able to help the team get the victory and score a goal,” said Villa.

“It is very important to continue winning, particularly away from home.”

Athletic Bilbao also enhanced their chances of playing Champions League football next season with a crushing 5-1 win over Osasuna to move five points clear of Villarreal in fourth.

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