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Real Madrid Back In Contention

Arjen Robben was Real Madrid’s hero as the reigning Primera Liga champions started 2009 on a winning note with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Villarreal at the Bernabeu.

Robben’s first-half wonder strike proved the only goal of the game as Madrid moved back into the Champions League spots and ensured the gap to leaders Barcelona – victors over Real Mallorca on Saturday night – remained at 12 points.

Madrid, for whom new signings Lassana Diarra and Klaas Jan Huntelaar were handed their debuts, did not have it easy though and they were indebted to some fine saves by Iker Casillas for keeping Villarreal at bay after the break.

In the end it was a moment of magic from Robben in the 33rd minute that separated the two sides, who were the top two in La Liga last season but started this match level on 29 points and well adrift of pacesetters Barca.

Sevilla’s hopes of regaining second spot in the Primera Liga were hit by a dramatic injury-time equaliser from Osasuna striker Walter Pandiani who made the game 1-1.

The home side appeared to be moving back to within 10 points of leaders Barcelona only for Pandiani to turn in Masoud Shojae’s volleyed cross-shot with the Sevilla defence appealing in vain for an offside flag.

There was still time for the hosts to come close to restoring their lead but Fredi Kanoute’s shot came back off the woodwork.

Jesus Navas scored the opener for the hosts on 50 minutes.

Hugo Sanchez claimed a valuable three points in his first match as Almeria coach with a 1-0 success over Real Betis in the Andalusian derby.

Miguel Angel Corona headed the only goal shortly before half-time but the hosts were forced to weather a second-half storm from Paco Chapparo’s men in a game that threatened to turn nasty late on when both teams had a player sent off.

Almeria substitute Kala Uche was first shown a red card for violent conduct with the board still to be raised for time added on but moments later Betis’ Sergio Garcia was also given his marching orders when he jumped in recklessly on Pablo Piatti.

Nikola Zigic’s second stint with Racing Santander got off to the perfect start as he scored the only goal to give them a 1-0 victory at Real Valladolid.

The giant Serbian was thrown straight into the action after returning to the club on loan from Valencia, and made his mark with a 64th-minute strike that was enough to collect the three points and a first win in five attempts for Racing.

Recreativo Huelva beat relegation rivals Numancia 3-1, although the outcome could have been completely different had the visitors not missed two penalties.

Goals from Javi Fuego, Javier Camunas and Aitor Tornavaca landed the points for the Andalusians after Jose Javier Barkero’s early miss from the spot, while Gorka Brit’s late consolation for the Soria-based side did little to appease his personal anguish at failing from 12 yards at 2-0 down.

The result lifts Recre out of the relegation zone as they continue to build on their recent improvement under Lucas Alcaraz, which has now seen them win three of their last four matches.

Malaga edged out Sporting Gijon 1-0 in a hard-fought encounter between two promoted sides.

Lolo scored the only goal of the match with a header in a dull first half to give Malaga their seventh win of the season and keep the Andalusians in eighth place as the Primera Liga resumed following the recent winter break.

Espanyol failed to move out of the bottom three after conceding a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Moises Hurtado put the Barcelona-based side in front eight minutes before half-time and the Catalans looked likely to hold on for an important victory until they were denied by Andoni Iraola’s brilliant late leveller.

On Saturday Andres Iniesta returned from injury to fire an important goal as Barcelona left it late to beat Mallorca 3-1 in the Primera Liga.

Iniesta was injured in Barcelona’s 1-1 draw at home to FC Basle in the Champions League back in early November and had not played since.

But he stepped off the substitutes’ bench to poke home the crucial second goal just as it seemed Mallorca might hold on for an unlikely point at the Nou Camp.

Aritz Aduriz gave the visitors a surprise lead after 15 minutes following some sloppy Barcelona defending, but Thierry Henry brought the Catalans level with a finely-taken equaliser on the half-hour mark.

The league leaders completely dominated the second half but were unable to find a way through until Iniesta’s crucial strike 15 minutes from time.

Yaya Toure added an impressive third in the dying seconds after Mallorca had been reduced to 10 men following Josemi’s dismissal.

David Silva was the star of the show as Valencia ran out convincing 3-1 winners against Atletico Madrid at the Mestalla.

The classy midfielder was recalled for his first start since the opening day of the season and gave a virtuoso display, scoring twice to cap a morale-boosting night for Unai Emery’s men.

David Villa had earlier given Los Che the lead from the penalty spot, although the visitors did threaten to take something out of the game when Diego Forlan halved a two-goal deficit from 12 yards on the stroke of half-time.

Atletico had climbed above Valencia for the first time this season in the final weekend before the winter break and it was clearly something the hosts were eager to address in a breathless first half.