Hierro hat-trick keeps Real Madrid top in Spain
Fernando Hierro struck a hat-trick to lead Real Madrid to a 3-1 win at home to Real Zaragoza on Sunday and preserve his side's slim lead at the top of the Spanish first division.
Valencia stayed level on points with Real at the summit, as they clinched a 2-1 home win over 10-man Osasuna thanks to an injury-time winner from Ruben Baraja, who had earlier missed a penalty.
After 31 games, Real and Valencia both have 56 points, with Real ahead thanks to their superior goal difference.
Deportivo Coruna, 3-1 winners at home to Tenerife on Sunday, are in third place, two points further back.
Celta Vigo maintained their push for a Champions League place with a stunning 6-1 win at Athletic Bilbao that lifted them to fourth on 51 points.
Barcelona kept alive their slim hopes of challenging for the title with a well earned 2-1 victory at Valladolid.
Carles Rexach's side, who came back from an early Luis Garcia strike to take the lead through Dutchmen Patrick Kluivert and Phillip Cocu, had to play the entire second half a man short after Abelardo was sent off on 42 minutes.
They managed to hang on, despite relentless Valladolid pressure, to move up to sixth place on 50 points.
None of the top three sides impressed on Sunday but all did just enough to keep up their challenge in the title race.
Real were grateful for the goalscoring heroics of their centre-back and captain Hierro as they struggled for fluency against a poor Zaragoza side.
Hierro bundled in his first goal from a Zinedine Zidane corner on 15 minutes and added the second from the penalty spot just before the hour mark.
Real appeared set for an uncomfortable end to the game when Savo Milosevic raced clear of the home defence to reduce the arrears with a smart finish on 78 minutes.
Hierro ensured there would be no upset, though, as he swept in Real's third from the edge of the area two minutes later.
"It's satisfying to see a player with Hierro's great track record demonstrating his enormous talent," Real coach Vicente del Bosque said.
"We controlled the game throughout and we created more and more chances as we went along. There were some touches of real quality as well."
Valencia were enduring a frustrating afternoon against Osasuna, who had Josetxo sent off after 30 minutes for giving away a penalty.
Baraja failed with the spot kick but Valencia eventually went ahead with a close range strike from Juan Sanchez with 12 minutes to go.
Osasuna responded seven minutes later to equalise through John Aloisi and the game was heading for a draw until Baraja made amends for his earlier miss with a late winner.
Deportivo also missed a penalty, Diego Tristan being the culprit at the Riazor after they had fallen behind to Tenerife.
Two goals from Lionel Scaloni got them back on track, though, and Roy Makaay wrapped up the victory late on.