Barcelona: Lionel Messi extended his record streak by scoring in his 12th consecutive Spanish league game to give leader Barcelona a 1-1 draw at Valencia, while Atletico Madrid remained perfect at home through 20 games in all competitions.
Midfielder Ever Banega struck first for Valencia in the 33rd, only for Messi to level for the visitors from the penalty spot six minutes later.
Former Valencia star David Villa had Barcelona’s best chance late but failed to finish on the break before goalkeeper Victor Valdes made an excellent save to deny Roberto Soldado two minutes from time and ensure a point for each side.
It was Barcelona’s second draw in five days after being held 1-1 by arch-rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal. But they still boasts a league record of 19 wins, two draws and one loss and leads Madrid by 16 points after the defending champions’ 1-0 loss at Granada on Saturday from Cristiano Ronaldo’s first career own goal.
“We never take the league title for granted, there is still a long way to go,” said defender Jordi Alba in his first trip back to Valencia since joining Barcelona last offseason. “Today we played against a great team.”
Second-place Atletico cut into Barcelona’s hefty lead by beating Real Betis 1-0 to reduce the gap with the pacesetters to nine points.
Radamel Falcao returned for Atletico after a two-week injury layoff, but it took forward Diego Costa coming off the bench in the 56th to head home the winner five minutes later.
Elsewhere on Sunday, Malaga was held to a 1-1 home draw by Real Zaragoza in the return of forward Julio Baptista after a 16-month layoff with a broken right foot, while Sevilla beat visiting Rayo Vallecano 2-1 as it continued to show improvement under new coach Unai Emery.
Real Sociedad rolled to a 3-0 victory over 10-man Mallorca, with Scotland defender Alan Hutton debuting for the losers after arriving on loan from Aston Villa during the winter transfer market. Barcelona was coached by assistant Jordi Roura with manager Tito Vilanova reportedly back in New York for further treatment after throat surgery to remove a tumor.
Roura only made one change in the starting 11 from Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Madrid in the Copa del Rey, with Javier Mascherano replacing Carles Puyol in defense.
The lack of fresh legs gave the better rested Valencia the advantage, especially early on.
“We came in with four days of rest, but considering the difficulty of the match, we preferred to keep the same block of players intact,” said Roura.
“It’s possible that we felt some wear and tear from the game against Madrid, but I would give credit to our rivals. We have only won here once in the past five years. The draw was a fair result.”
Valencia pressed Barcelona high up the pitch from the start, and succeeded in deactivating its passing attack for the most part until Banega put the hosts in front.
Valencia was peppering Barcelona’s area with high balls when Gerard Pique’s clearance fell to Banega unmarked in the box for him to fire low into the net to take the opener.
Messi had his part in provoking the equalizing penalty when he dribbled forward and passed to Pedro Rodriguez, who was subsequently bulled over by Joao Pereira inside the area. Messi blasted the spot kick into the upper corner to take his league-leading tally to 34 goals in 22 rounds this season, 13 more than Ronaldo. The four-time world player of the year has 45 goals in all competitions.
Best known for his goal scoring feats, Messi displayed his playmaking abilities 10 minutes after halftime when he placed a perfectly weighted pass between five defenders to reach the streaking Cesc Fabregas, who could do no better than fire into the side netting.
Valencia reclaimed the initiative, with Soldado coming close three times before substitute Sergio Canales forced Valdes into a diving parry to push his shot beyond the post. Roura sent on Villa for Fabregas with just under 20 minutes left, and the little-used Spain striker shot wide from an angle to squander Barcelona’s single counterattack in the 77th.
Soldado had his best opportunity to grab the three points in the final stretch of the game when Pique lost possession, but Valdes sprang to smother his close-range try.
On Saturday, Osasuna edged out Celta Vigo 1-0, Getafe defeated Deportivo La Coruna 3-1, and Espanyol held on to beat Levante 3-2. Athletic Bilbao drew 2-2 at Valladolid on Friday.