BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Valencia kept pace with Spanish leader Barcelona on Sunday by beating Espanyol 2-0 for an eighth straight league win despite having coach Marcelino Garcia Toral sent off.
In his first season, Garcia Toral has transformed Valencia from a team that had struggled to compete with the league’s best in recent years into Barcelona’s top challenger.
Undefeated Valencia continued its best ever start to the league through 12 rounds. At four points behind Barcelona, the win set up a key match next week when Barcelona visits Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium.
The victory also let Valencia open up a six-point gap over Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, which drew 0-0 in a derby on Saturday.
Assistant coach Ruben Uria, who will lead the team against Barcelona while Garcia Toral serves out his suspension, said Valencia is taking it one game at a time.
“We will try to win any way we can and close the distance with Barca,” Uria said. “At this stage of the season, it is hard to say we’re going to fight for the title.”
Both of Valencia’s goals came after the referee expelled Garcia Toral, which appeared to be for arguing, in the 65th minute. Espanyol had dominated the scoring opportunities until then.
Geoffrey Kondogbia turned the match in the visitors’ favor with a long-range strike in the 67th. The French midfielder, who joined Valencia on loan from Inter Milan this season, controlled a clearance before letting loose a curling left-footed shot that slipped between goalkeeper Pau Lopez and his post.
Santi Mina poached a second goal in the 83rd when Espanyol defender Victor Sanchez used his chest to attempt to knock a cross back to Lopez, only to leave the ball in perfect position for the Valencia striker to slip past him and drive it home.
Garcia Toral left regular starters Simone Zaza, Carlos Soler and Goncalo Guedes on his bench for the away match.
Their absence showed through the first hour, as Valencia was fortunate to reach halftime without conceding.
Espanyol’s David Lopez, Sergio Garcia and Pablo Piatti all forced saves from Valencia goalkeeper Neto before Gerard Moreno and Sergi Darder both hit the woodwork.
“Next weekend we will have an even harder battle than the one we had today,” Mina said. “From the first match of the season, we have shown that we will fight until the end.”
Borja “Baston” Gonzalez’s first goal of the season gave Malaga a much-needed 3-2 win over Deportivo La Coruna that lifted it out of last place.
Trailing 2-1, Chory Castro leveled for Malaga in the 64th before Baston completed the comeback with five minutes left.
Las Palmas fans waved white handkerchiefs and jeered their team after it dropped to last place following a 2-0 defeat to Levante.
It was the Canary Islands club’s eighth loss in a row in the league.
Cheik Doukoure headed in Levante’s first in the 72nd before Jason added a second goal from a fine solo effort, cutting back from the left flank before curling a shot inside the far post.
Las Palmas coach Paco Ayestaran said “everything that could go wrong, went wrong.”
ADURIZ TO THE RESCUE
Aritz Aduriz headed in his fifth goal of the season in the 77th to give Athletic Bilbao a 1-1 draw at home to Villarreal.
Manuel Trigueros put Villarreal ahead in the first half with a precise strike after he had an earlier penalty kick saved by goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.