MADRID, March 29 (Xinhua) -- The three candidates for the Spanish Primera Liga title all got through their respective games on a dramatic Saturday to leave the race to win the league as it was before kick-off.
Atletico Madrid and Barcelona both won difficult away games to remain first and second while Real Madrid enjoyed a straightforward victory at home to Rayo Vallecano.
After two games in the previous week, Saturday promised high-drama in three acts as the title challengers tried to avoid a possibly fatal blow to their hopes.
The first act lived up to the hype as FC Barcelona took three points from the always difficult Cornella-El Prat Stadium as a Leo Messi penalty gave them a 1-0 win over Espanyol.
It was always going to be a massive test for Barca to play away to Espanyol, who always give everything they have against their rich and powerful neighbors.
The game was hard and physical as Espanyol did just that, though Barca had two clear chances which fell to Neymar, who fired wastefully over and Gerard Pique, who hit the bar before Messi put them ahead from the penalty spot.
Javi Lopez handled clearly 15 minutes from time, although there was a suspicion that Neymar could have handled moments before. Messi kept his cool to send Kiko Casilla the wrong way from the spot.
The Espanyol keeper was sent off 6 minutes from time after handling outside of the penalty area and replaced by Lopez as Espanyol had used their three substitutes and had to put an outfield player in goal.
Barca's win momentarily took them top and after a brief interlude which saw Celta Vigo end Sevilla's 6-game winning run with a 1-0 defeat, the action moved to Athletic Club Bilbao's San Mames stadium as the Basques took on Atletico Madrid.
Atletico knew they needed a win in order to go back to the top of the table and the drama threatened to become a tragedy for Diego Simeone's side when Iker Muniain put the home side ahead after just five minutes after latching onto a long ball from defense and lobbing Thibaut Courtois.
However, Atletico reacted quickly and began to stifle Athletic in midfield and as a result of forcing an error from Ander Iturraspe, Diego Costa sprinted free to net his 25th league game of the campaign.
Koke netted what turned out to be the winning goal 10 minutes after the break following a deflected cross from Felipe Luis and Atletico were able to hold on with few problems except an Aritz Aduriz header which was brilliantly saved by Courtois.
That passed the baton for Real Madrid to bring the curtain down on the day at home to Rayo Vallecano in a rain-soaked Santiago Bernabeu.
Real Madrid went into the game on the back of two painful defeats in less than a week while Rayo had taken 13 points from a possible 15, but Cristiano Ronaldo helped calm home nerves with a typical goal after 15 minutes.
Dani Carvajal's first goal for Real Madrid ensured the points after 55 minutes and Gareth Bale netted two goals in two minutes as Rayo pushed their defense suicideally far forward.
Bale's second goal came after running three quarters of the length of the pitch with only one player in front of him to make it 4-0, before Alvaro Morata added a fifth with a fine curling shot.