Real Madrid kept on the shoulders of Barcelona with their sixth successive away victory thanks to a 1-0 win at Malaga, but with Barcelona also winning the difference at the top remains five points.
Real coach Juande Ramos was forced to field a weakened team with several players out injured most notably Arjen Robben who has been a key performer for the Madrid side this season.
After a goalless first half, Gonzalo Higuain made the breakthrough powering through the defence and finishing well.
Higuain had chances to add to the lead as did Rafael Van de Vaart and Sergio Ramos but Malaga also had their possibilities especially through Nabil Baha whose shot was saved well by Iker Casillas.
Barcelona's weary collection of international globe-trotters produced a workmanlike performance to beat Valladolid 1-0 with Samuel Eto'o scoring the only goal.
Having lost three out of four matches following World Cup and international breaks this season, Pep Guardiola's team knew that they could not afford to drop points.
Barcelona began the game with Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry on the bench but while they controlled the game they struggled to create openings.
That was until Eto'o coolly beat the Valladolid keeper shortly before half-time with a match-winning lob.
The second half was more even and Messi and Dani Alves were introduced to bolster a Barcelona team.
Barcelona's next mission is a home Champions League quarter-final first leg clash with Bayern Munich in midweek.
"Valladolid made the game difficult for us by creating a high tempo and this was on top of the ten days away with international teams," said Guardiola.
"The players responded well and you have to value who we were up against and these three points are very important.
"Valladolid have been the only team in the league who have had the bravery to actually attack us and the response from my players was very good and has needed a lot of effort."
Valladolid coach Jose Luis Mendilbar accepted Barcelona deserved the win.
"We kept going to the end although it is true that in the end it counts for nothing," he said.
Villarreal, who tackle Arsenal in their last eight European tie on Tuesday, slumped to a 3-0 defeat against Almeria who won through first half goals from Alvaro Negredo, Pablo Piatti and Jose Mane.
Negredo continued his fine form setting up the other two goals after scoring the first.
With half an hour to go Robert Pires, a former Arsenal player, was sent-off for Villarreal for a foul after frustration got the better of him.
Sevilla consolidated their third place with an important 1-0 win away to Recreativo Huelva courtesy of a Frederic Kanoute penalty after 33 minutes following a foul by Poli Fernandez on Renato.
Real Betis looked to have ended their winless streak against Numancia in their relegation battle but a late penalty, which also saw keeper Ricardo Pereira sent-off, was converted by Carlos Aranda and it earned the visitors a point in a 3-3 draw.
Aranda earlier equalised Sergio Garcia's opener for Betis and then Jose Barkero put Numancia ahead before Jesus Capi and Ricardo Oliveria turned the game around late on.
Numancia had the final say though through Aranda's spot kick.
Athletic Bilbao ended a seven-match streak without a win with a 2-1 victory over in-form Mallorca.
Fran Yeste converted a penalty after just three minutes following a David Navarro handball and then Javi Martinez put them back ahead after Jose Jurado had equalised.
On Sunday, Atletico Madrid play Osasuna and Valencia meet Getafe looking to find more consistent form as they push for a place in the Champions League.