Paris: Frenchman Karim Benzema scored in his third consecutive game as Real Madrid beat Hercules 2-0 and move within four points of leaders Barcelona on Saturday.
Benzema has had his fair share of criticism from coach Jose Mourinho this season but has hit form in recent weeks and had a good understanding in attack alongside Emmanuel Adebayor against Hercules.
With Real facing an important Champions League match against Lyon in mid-week, Mourinho held in reserve Pepe, Xabi Alonso and Cristiano Ronaldo but second-from-bottom Hercules failed to take advantage and caused little danger.
Benzema slotted home an Alvaro Arbeloa pass mid-way through the first half and then struck again after the break.
Earlier struggling Almeria snatched a point against Atletico Madrid with substitute Henok Goitom heading home to equalise in a 2-2 draw on Saturday.
Almeria will be happy with the point after twice coming from behind but they remain in the bottom three while Atletico will go home knowing that poor defending cost them a win in their battle for a European place.
Sergio Aguero put Atletico ahead after latching onto a ball over the defence but Albert Crusat drew Almeria level.
Aguero looked to have given Atletico the win when he struck a left shot into the corner from the edge of the area but Almeria again responded with Goitom powering a Jose Ortiz cross past the outstretched Atletico keeper.
The battle for a Europa League place has opened up with Espanyol having lost six out of their last seven games, and Athletic Bilbao had lost their previous four until they beat Sevilla.
Atletico have now moved up to seventh while above them Espanyol take on Deportivo la Coruna and Athletic Bilbao play Getafe.
In Saturday’s late match Valencia, who maybe riding high in the league but an early exit from the Champions League by Schalke has put the pressure on coach Unai Emery, face Zaragoza.
Leaders Barcelona travel to Sevilla on Sunday and coach Pep Guardiola is expecting a stern test for his side.
The Catalan club, who hold a seven-point advantage at the top of the table, turn their attention back to La Liga action after beating Arsenal in a controversial Champions League eliminator.
“Last season against Sevilla I had my worst 20 minutes as a coach. With ten against 11 at 0-3 we finished the game suffering a lot,” said Guardiola, who is not concerned that his side has only managed one goal in each of their last two league games.
“This is one of the toughest stadiums to come to but I don’t think our scoring record is a problem as the key is to create chances which we have done.
“Sevilla have a very good side and although (Luis) Fabiano is not playing there is (Alvaro) Negredo who is in excellent form and a similar type of player.”
The thought of facing Barcelona’s attacking trident of Leo Messi, Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa is a sobering thought for Sevilla defender Martin Caceres.
“The key is to be concentrated for 90 minutes and to try and impose our own football but it won’t be easy as all their players have tremendous ability,” said the Uruguayan.
“We will have to run a lot to beat them, be lucky and also play with the right mentality to win the match.”
For the first half of the season, Villarreal managed to keep on the shoulders of the top two but they prepare to meet Sporting Gijon looking to rediscover that consistency they have lost partly due to injuries.
Malaga’s outlook is bleak as they sit at the foot of the table following two straight defeats, including a 7-0 thrashing by Real Madrid.
They now have a difficult away trip to Real Sociedad, one of the surprise packages this season and still with an outside chance of qualifying for Europe.