Barcelona moved seven points clear in La Liga after Real Madrid showed plenty of effort but insufficient invention as they drew 0-0 against a well-organised Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday.
After Barcelona's 3-0 win over Mallorca earlier, the pressure was on Real who went into the late game in confident mood after three consecutive wins.
From the start though it was evident that it would be a tough task as Deportivo defended deeply and appeared to be battling for their lives. Cristiano Ronaldo was a constant threat but most of Real's shots came from distance.
Their best openings came in a grandstand finish when first substitute Emmanuel Adebayor and then Ronaldo hit the post but they were unable to find the all important goal.
Barcelona had shrugged off claims that they were starting to feel the strain as a makeshift team overcame Mallorca.
BarÃ§a had not been at their best as they lost to Arsenal in the Champions League and then struggled to beat Athletic Bilbao. Injuries to Xavi Hernandez, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes suggested that the exertion was starting to take its toll.
With Dani Alves also suspended it was an unfamiliar looking BarÃ§a side but after Messi opened the scoring with a header following hesitation in the penalty area, they never looked back.
David Villa may have been narrowly offside as he raced clear of the defence to increase the lead and then Pedro Rodriguez completed the scoring.
After the game coach Pep Guardiola admitted that they were finding it difficult to break down Mallorca until the first goal.
"It is not easy to come in if you don't play every week but if you have the personality of Seydou (Keita) then it is a lot simpler. He along with Andres (Iniesta) were vital to us in the first half and I will remember this match as the toughest for us to score," he said.
"After a long week we didn't have much rhythm but the first goal helped us a lot and we suffered less. The 3-0 result was very good against a side which has conceded few goals at home."
An impressive second half display by Espanyol helped them to a 4-1 win over Real Sociedad and put their European hopes back on track.
All the talk before the game was about the return of Sociedad's Raul Tamudo to his former club where he is the all-time highest goal scorer, but he failed to find a way passed an impressive Carlos Kameni in the Espanyol goal.
Against the run of play, Daniel Estrada put the ball into his own net but he made amends two minutes later to bring Sociedad level.
Espanyol, who had lost their last four games, were much improved after the interval with Sergio Garcia's clinical finish followed by goals from Jose Callejon and Javi Marquez.
Atletico Madrid twice came from behind to earn a 2-2 draw with Sevilla.
In a match between two sides that have struggled for consistency, Alvaro Negredo gave Sevilla the lead but Jorge Koke headed Atletico level immediately after the restart. Ivan Rakitic restored the Andalusian side's advantage before Jose Antonio Reyes earnt Atletico a point.
Sporting Gijon's relegation clash with Zaragoza ended in a 0-0 stalemate as neither side showed sufficient courage to commit players in attack.
Valencia have taken advantage of a slump in form from Villarreal to move into third place but tomorrow they face a tough match away to Athletic Bilbao who have a strong home record.
Villarreal travel to Racing Santander having picked up just one point from three games as their extra commitments in the Europa League appear to be taking their toll.