The world's two best players provided the inspiration for their sides to overcome difficult opponents and seal vital wins a week ahead of their crunch clast at Camp Nou
They said it would never be broken. Telmo Zarra's record of 38 league goals in a Spanish season stood from 1951 to 1990, when it was equalled by Hugo Sanchez, and subsequently remained in place for 21 more years. But now one of La Liga's longest-standing marks has been smashed - not just once but twice. And not just by one player, but two.Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi cannot both win La Liga this term, but just like the teams they represent, the two talismans have risen above the rest in 2011-12. And on Saturday, both broke the record for league strikes in a single season in Spain.
Cristiano had already done it. In 2010-11, both he and Messi netted 53 goals in all competitions, although the Portuguese managed more in La Liga, claiming the Pichichi prize after he hit the back of the net 40 times in the Primera Division.
Except Spanish sports paper Marca, who award the Pichichi trophy, attributed another strike to Ronaldo, even though the referee in the match against Real Sociedad had given the goal to Pepe. So the record books say he hit 40, although the trophy tells of 41.
CRISTIANO RONALDO IN LA LIGA
It hardly matters. Cristiano headed home an all-important second goal for Madrid on Saturday as Mourinho's men toiled before beating Sporting Gijon 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu to move provisionally seven points clear of Barca - in action straight afterwards against Levante.
Like Madrid, Barca began badly and just as their eternal enemies had done, the Catalans conceded a first-half penalty for handball - for Real's Ramos, read Barca's Busquets - and gone behind to a less-fancied rival. But both reacted.
After going a goal down following Miguel de las Cuevas' spot-kick, Madrid hit back barely seven minutes later through Gonzalo Higuain's glancing header. Things then seemed simple, but proved anything but so as Sporting defended diligently with a five-man back line and their two central midfielders dropping back to form an almost impenetrable shield. Wily coach Javier Clemente, hardly a popular figure at the Bernabeu, had clearly come to park the bus. Notably, his best player, striker David Barral, had not even been called up for the match. The former Spain boss had said he would attack but actions, in this case, spoke louder than words.
Just as Madrid fans began to fear the worst, however - following recent disappointing draws versus Valencia, Villarreal and Malaga - Ronaldo rose to glance a 73rd-minute header in off the post and unlock a Sporting side which had slammed the door shut and seemingly thrown away the key.
Karim Benzema then added a third as Madrid ran out 3-1 winners, equalling their all-time Liga goals record of 107 in the process and maintaining the pressure on Barca ahead of next weekend's Clasico.
LIONEL MESSI IN LA LIGA
But before Barca could contemplate the Camp Nou clash on April 21, they had to focus on Levante; historically a difficult destination and one where Madrid had fallen to a damaging defeat earlier on this term.
And for an hour, it looked as if Guardiola's side may face a similar fate. Jose Barkero put the locals in front from the spot after Busquets had handled in the area - and Levante looked good for their lead, restricting their illustrious invitees to only a handful of opportunities.
Messi, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. Struggling for space and lacking inspiration on a poor pitch, the Argentine looked lost at the Ciutat de Valencia. But he soon appeared, curling home an equaliser after 64 minutes and adding a second from the spot soon afterwards, as Isaac Cuenca went down following a shove from Pedro Botelho.
As Levante contended the decision, Messi kept his cool and racked up his 41st of the season in La Liga, too. And afterwards, even Guardiola began to believe. "Winning the league is a little less impossible now," claimed the Barca boss, who has maintained up until now that his side had no chance of catching Madrid.
THE RACE FOR LA LIGA | THE TABLE AFTER 33 GAMES
But beat Mourinho's men next Saturday and Barca will sit just a point adrift of their fiercest foes with four fixtures still remaining. As so often before, it all comes down to the Clasico.
Messi and Ronaldo will be there, too. The Portuguese is just one yellow card away from a ban, but avoided a booking on Saturday and will go head-to-head with the Argentine as Barca and Madrid fight it out for La Liga.
Score one more and Madrid will also beat their all-time goals record of 107 in La Liga, set by John Toshack's team in 1989-90. There's the Pichichi to play for as well, although silverware will come first for Spain's superstar duo.
Only on Friday, Guardiola said: "Messi and Ronaldo dine apart from the rest - we are lucky to have them in La Liga." Next weekend, they'll be dining together.