Madrid: Argentine sensation Lionel Messi scored his 27th league goal of the season as champions Barcelona defeated Valencia 1-0 at the Mestalla stadium to move ten points clear of rivals Real Madrid at the Spanish first division summit.
Messi netted a 76th minute winner as Barcelona continued their unbeaten away run and put Real under extra pressure to win at home to Malaga on Thursday.
Ballon D`Or winner Messi had missed several chances in the first half but came good 14 minutes from time slotting in a cross from Adriano to clinch a vital win.
It handed coach Pep Guardiola his first ever victory at the Mestalla, which had been the only top-flight venue where he had failed to secure three points.
For third-placed Valencia it was a first league defeat since early December of last year and Villarreal are now just one point behind them in fourth.
It was an emotional first return to the Mestalla for Spanish World Cup star David Villa, who spent five years at the club before joining Barcelona for 40 million euros in the summer, and the forward was given a warm reception from the home fans.
Spanish international playmaker Xavi returned to the Barca starting line-up after recovering from his calf injury to join Javier Mascherano and Sergi Busquets in midfield.
Valencia decided to play with Juan Mata, normally a winger, leading the line and the hosts started at a high tempo to try and disrupt Barcelona`s possession game.
Eric Abidal and Dani Alves were both forced to make crucial clearances for Barcelona early on before the champions found their rhythm.
In the ninth minute Messi went clean through on goal but the Argentine fluffed a chance he usually buries on autopilot.
Messi had three chances to score but missed them all with goalkeeper Vicente Guaita, third choice at the beginning of the season, standing tall.
Valencia thought they had scored in the 20th minute but Jordi Alba`s goal was ruled out for offside.
Just after the half hour mark Messi squandered another goalscoring opportunity when his lob landed on the roof of the net with only Guaita to beat.
Villa and full back Adriano both went close before the interval but Barcelona went into the break frustrated at the 0-0 scoreline.
Substitute Roberto Soldado volleyed just wide in the 51st minute for Valencia`s best chance of the match and Pablo Hernandez then curled inches wide of the post minutes later to give Barcelona a warning.
The decisive goal came on 76 minutes with Brazilian Adriano cutting the ball across goal for Messi to arrive on cue to guide in with his trusty left foot.
Earlier Villarreal ended a run of four league games without a win with a 1-0 home victory over promoted Hercules.
Italian international forward Giuseppe Rossi scored his 13th league goal of the season on 21 minutes to seal Villarreal`s 11th home win of the campaign as they got back to winning ways after collecting two points from the last 12.
Elsewhere Athletic Bilbao crashed to their fourth successive league loss with a 2-1 reverse at Real Zaragoza.
Czech Jiri Jarosik headed an equaliser three minutes after the break and Nigerian striker Ikechuwku Uche scored the winner on 55 minutes as Zaragoza moved out of the bottom three.
Bilbao, who could have gone above Espanyol into fifth, stay sixth but Sevilla are now level on points after their 3-0 home win over Sporting Gijon on Tuesday.
In other matches, city rivals Getafe and Atletico Madrid shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw at the Coliseum Alfonso Perez.
Brazilian substitute Elias Mendes, only on the pitch for 14 minutes, grabbed an 81st minute equaliser for Atletico after Manu del Moral had put Getafe into a third minute lead.