|So casual: Ronaldo's backheel keeps Real at the top of the Spanish table with victory over Rayo [GETTY]
Lionel Messi's quick thinking and brilliant execution fired Barcelona to a 2-1 Primera Division win at Atletico Madrid on Sunday that kept the gap on leaders Real Madrid to 10 points.
The World Player of the Year caught the Atletico defence napping to score a breathtaking 81st-minute free kick and settle an intense battle at the Calderon after Atletico striker Radamel Falcao had cancelled out Daniel Alves's opening goal.
As the home defence lined up to defend the free kick wide on the left, Messi noticed Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois out of position and curled a stunning strike over the Belgian's head into the far top corner for his 28th league goal of the season.
Real had earlier squeaked past Madrid neighbours Rayo Vallecano 1-0 thanks to a clever Cristiano Ronaldo backheel that helped Jose Mourinho's side equal the club record of nine straight away wins from the 2009-10 season.
The Portuguese international pounced on a loose ball at a 54th-minute corner and sent it through a crowd of players into the net for his 29th strike of the campaign, one ahead of Messi at the top of the scoring chart.
"I didn't even think when I scored," Ronaldo said.
"I just hit the ball with my heel and therefore surprised the defenders and the goalkeeper," the former Manchester United player added.
"I hit it strongly enough so they couldn't stop it. It gave us the victory, so it's worth twice us much to us."
Real's victory at promoted Rayo's sun-drenched stadium in the south east of the Spanish capital put Jose Mourinho's side on 64 points from 24 matches, with Barca on 54 in second and Valencia, who lost 2-1 at home to Sevilla, 14 points further back in third.
In Saturday’s matches Levante won a skirmish in the battle for a Champions League qualifying place when they beat Espanyol 2-1 away and climbed above the Barcelona-based club to fourth.
Levante, who are in the race for a berth in Europe's elite club competition despite having one of the oldest squads in the league, snatched victory at the Cornella stadium when Ruben Suarez's 89th-minute free kick was deflected into the net.
The Valencia-based club have 35 points from 24 matches, one more than fifth-placed Malaga, who thumped bottom side Real Zaragoza 5-1 in the earlier kickoff.
Fellow strugglers Racing Santander and Sporting Gijon drew 1-1 in Santander and are 18th and 19th respectively, while Real Betis and Getafe played out a 1-1 stalemate in Seville that left them in 11th and 13th.