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Barça and Real exert stranglehold on 'Liga'

Top two in ominous form ahead of season's first clasico

Three matches, 16 goals- 13 of them scored by Real Madrid and Barcelona. That was the story of last Saturday in La Liga, and it is a script that is becoming so familiar that other teams have little to do past learning their lines and playing their walk-on part in the tragi-comedy to the best of their ability.

Barça's 8-0 slaughter of Almería was so comprehensive that the Mediterranean club's president sacked under-fire coach Juanma Lillo immediately after the game. Almería might have installed a hybrid coach constructed from the DNA of Brian Clough, Ottmar Hitzfeld and José Mourinho and it wouldn't have made the slightest jot of difference, such is the top two's superiority over the rest of La Liga. Many clubs operating on annual budgets that would not fund a boardroom banquet at Camp Nou or the Bernabéu have little hope of making any kind of impression on the only table that matters. Leo Messi bagged yet another hat-trick and Bojan Krkic helped himself to a brace after the break, by which stage Barça coach Pep Guardiola had removed Xavi and Andrés Iniesta from the turkey shoot ahead of the clásico next weekend- one of two matches certain to decide the destination of this year's title.

Real took to the field against Athletic Bilbao sooner after news filtered through of Barça's butchery on the coast. But any chance of one of La Liga's mini-clásicos living up to its billing was quashed inside half an hour after Gonzalo Higuaín and Cristiano Ronaldo fired the home side into a two-goal lead. Fernando Llorente pulled one back for the visitor and was Athletic's most potent weapon throughout, the Spain forward hustling and bustling and proving a sizeable thorn in Madrid's side. Even the stoutest of hearts, though, acquiesces when two penalty decisions are awarded to the home side. The first, a trip on Ángel di María, was clear-cut and buried with relish by Sergio Ramos. The second was less convincing, Esteban Granero taking his time to tumble under an Athletic challenge, but Ronaldo's penalty kick- repeated after his stop-start run invited encroachment by both teams- was imperious enough to seal a hat-trick and a 5-1 win for his team.

Earlier on Saturday, two of the challengers for the top spot in the "league of 18", Valencia and Villarreal, played out a 1-1 tie at the latter's El Madrigal stadium that served neither side great purpose. Aritz Aduriz gave the visitor the lead on the half-hour mark, deftly back-heeling a driven Joaquín cross into the net but Guiseppe Rossi maintained his own scoring form to level the match in the second half, stealing in front of Valencia's static defense to poke the ball past Miguel Moyá.

The impasse leaves Villarreal eight points adrift of leader Real with 24, and Valencia 10 behind second-placed Barça on 21.