|Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi celebrate a goal, on Sunday. (Reuters)
Barcelona: The three-horse race for the La Liga title tightened on Sunday when leaders Real Madrid drew 2-2 at city rivals Atletico and Barcelona won 4-1 at home to Almeria.
Real needed a Cristiano Ronaldo goal eight minutes from time to earn a point at Atletico’s Calderon stadium in a typically feisty Madrid derby, before Lionel Messi became only the third player to reach 230 La Liga goals in Barca’s victory at the Nou Camp.
With 12 matches left, Real lead on 64 points, with champions Barca, chasing a fifth title in six years, second on 63 and Atletico, who are mounting a genuine challenge for the first time since they last won La Liga in 1996, third on 61.
At the Nou Camp, Alexis Sanchez set the hosts on their way in the 10th minute before a superb Lionel Messi free-kick made it 2-0 inside 25 minutes.
It was the Argentina forward’s 230th La Liga goal, putting him only four short of former Real forward Hugo Sanchez, who is second on the all-time list, and closer to record marksman Telmo Zarra on 251.
A moment’s sloppiness in the Barca backline allowed Angel Trujillo to pull one back for Almeria and at 2-1 Barca endured more than one or two nervy moments as the visitors probed for a leveller.
It took until the 83rd minute for Barcelona to finally seal the contest, Carles Puyol following up with a smart finish after Messi's header had come back off the bar, while there was still time for Xavi to inflate the scoreline further with a sumptuous fourth.
The hosts looked threatening from kick-off, with Dani Alves in particular proving a nuisance with a couple of dangerous forays into the Almeria box.
Gerardo Martino’s men soon turned their early threat into the opener when Neymar picked out Cesc Fabregas in the area, the former Arsenal man shifting the ball inside and firing in a low drive that Esteban could only parry, allowing Sanchez a simple finish.
Barca maintain their stranglehold on the match without seriously threatening the Almeria goal a second time, but that changed in the 24th minute when Corona brought down Messi 25 yards from goal.
The Argentina international unsurprisingly picked himself up to take the set-piece and did not disappoint an expectant Nou Camp with what came next, the prolific forward firing home a wonderful effort that began off-target before curling wickedly into the top-left corner of Esteban’s goal.