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Barcelona stretches lead in Spain

BARCELONA ended a barren run with a 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao and extended its lead in the Spanish league to six points yesterday.

With its first win in four league games, Barcelona also took advantage of second-place Real Madrid's 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, a result which ended the defending champion's 10-game winning streak in the league.

Madrid striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar equalized in the 57th minute after Diego Forlan scored in the 38th for Atletico, which remains without a victory over its crosstown rival in the past 10 years.

Later, Villarreal beat lowly Espanyol 1-0.

With 12 rounds remaining, Barcelona had 63 points from 26 games, while Madrid, which had cut Barcelona's lead from 12 to 4 points in the previous three weeks, had 57. Sevilla, which hosts Almeria today, followed with 47, two more than Villarreal. Atletico stayed fifth with 40.

Also today, it's: Recreativo Huelva vs. Valladolid; Mallorca vs. Real Betis; Osasuna vs. Sporting Gijon; Deportivo La Coruna vs. Racing Santander; Numancia vs. Valencia; and Getafe vs. Malaga.

Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets headed home from Xavi Hernandez's floated free kick in the 17th minute at Camp Nou in a dress rehearsal for the Copa del Rey final in May.

Lionel Messi doubled Barcelona's lead 15 minutes later with a penalty awarded after Bilbao midfielder Carlos Gurpegui was adjudged to have tripped Andres Iniesta. The goal was the Argentine winger's 18th of the season.

Iniesta's shot hit the post in the 47th minute, while Samuel Eto'o wasted a clear chance in the 57th and then rattled the woodwork in the 65th and 88th as Barcelona overwhelmed Bilbao after halftime.

However, Barcelona captain Carles Puyol was carried off the field on a stretcher with a sprained left ankle late in the game, sidelining him for three weeks, including Wednesday's game at Camp Nou against Lyon in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16. The teams drew 1-1 in France.

The teams from the Spanish capital also face Champions League games next week, with Madrid hoping to overturn a 1-0 defeat when it visits Liverpool on Tuesday and Atletico playing at Porto on Wednesday with the scoreline at 2-2.

Madrid coach Juande Ramos left Gonzalo Higuain, who has 14 goals this season, on the bench although Atletico's Abel Resino included all his top players in the starting lineup.

Madrid looked the more threatening in the early stages, with Atletico goalkeeper Leo Franco keeping his team level with two saves from Madrid forward Arjen Robben in the 13th and 22nd and another from Marcelo in the 35th.

Franco's Madrid counterpart, Iker Casillas, then came to his team's rescue with a parry from Atletico forward Sergio Aguero in the 36th.

However, Casillas could do nothing to prevent Forlan from netting his 18th goal of the season two minutes later following a swift counterattack in which Aguero's incisive passes played a central role.

Higuain appeared in place of Jose Maria "Guti" Gutierrez in the 55th minute and two minutes later found Huntelaar, who fired a rising shot past Franco.

Forlan hit the post with a shot two minutes later, and Atletico substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Aguero each spurned clear opportunities as Atletico continued to trouble the home team with its counter attacks.

Aguero twice could have scored in the 77th minute although Madrid also pushed hard for a winner, with captain Raul Gonzalez hooking the ball narrowly wide four minutes later.

Villarreal warmed up for Tuesday's Champions League match at Panathinaikos, which stands at 1-1, with a hard-fought win over Espanyol.

Central defender Fabricio Fuentes claimed the only goal when he headed home from a corner in the 20th, although Espanyol striker Luis Garcia wasted a chance to equalize in the 66th when his penalty bounced off the crossbar.


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