|Llorente saw a late chance to force a draw denied by goalkeeper Diego Lopez as Bilbao stay sixth [AFP]
A superb header from Marco Ruben earned Villarreal a 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao and kept his side firmly in the race for European football next season.
After a dull first half, Ruben made the breakthrough for the Yellow Submarine in the 58th minute when he rose to head home Borja Valero's cross at the far post.
With Brazil striker Nilmar missing through injury, Villarreal had struggled to find a way through the Bilbao defence in the first half at San Mames stadium.
Bilbao didn't shine either, with winger Iker Muniain's pace on the left flank providing something of a threat, though the occasional cross to Fernando Llorente failed to reach its target.
Ruben's goal forced Bilbao to look for an equaliser and two minutes later Llorente controlled a pass with his chest before firing just past the post.
The game opened up and Giuseppe Rossi finally got free to test Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz with a shot in the 62nd minute.
Bilbao midfielder Javi Martinez saw his header float wide in the 65th, and Muniain fired into the arms of Villarreal goalkeeper Diego Lopez moments later.
Iraizoz deflected Santi Cazorla's volley over the crossbar in the visitors' best chance to double their lead.
Lopez blocked a low strike by Bilbao's Mikel Susaeta in the and stretched to make a great one-handed save to deny Llorente's header four minutes from time to protect the victory.
With the loss, Bilbao remained a point behind Espanyol in sixth place.
Earlier, Osasuna scored twice in each half to thrash Hercules 4-0 for their third straight win.
Osasuna moved six points clear of the relegation zone and have now won four and drawn one of six games since Jose Luis Mendilibar replaced Jose Antonio Camacho as coach.
Hercules go bottom after a fourth straight loss.
At La Rosaleda, Jose Rondon scored twice as Malaga defeated Espanyol 2-0 after a dominant first half.
Malaga are one point from safety after a second straight win.
Levante stayed undefeated in five matches after beating Deportivo La Coruna 1-0 from Ruben Suarez's 90th-minute free kick.
Miguel de las Cuevas scored to give Sporting Gijon a 1-0 win over Almeria, and Racing Santander beat Real Sociedad 2-1.
Valencia were playing Sevilla in Sunday's late game.