MADRID: Valencia tightened their grip on third place in La Liga when Roberto Soldado struck twice in a 2-0 home win over Malaga as another Atletico Madrid defeat heaped pressure on coach Gregorio Manzano on Sunday.
A day after Real Madrid moved three points clear of champions Barcelona at the top after 16 games, Soldado's 10th and 11th goals of the campaign put Valencia four behind Barca and four ahead of fourth-placed Levante who lost 2-1 at Granada.
Barca were in action at the Club World Cup in Japan earlier on Sunday, claiming their second triumph in three years with a crushing 4-0 defeat of Brazilian side Santos.
Soldado, a former Real Madrid striker, has been making a strong case for a recall to the Spain squad for next year's European Championship and both goals were fine examples of the striker's art.
Jonas played the ball into space in the 36th minute at Valencia's Mestalla stadium and Soldado rounded Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero before powering the ball into the net.
His second came after neat work on the left wing from Jordi Alba and he volleyed spectacularly home at the far post to double the home side's lead with around half an hour left.
Soldado sent a message of support after the game to former Valencia striker David Villa, who broke his leg playing for Barca at the Club World Cup on Thursday.
If Spain's all-time top scorer is not fit for Euro 2012, coach Vicente Del Bosque may turn to Soldado to fill the gap and the Valencia fans were chanting 'Soldado for the national team!' on Sunday.
“It's nice that the fans sing that and it makes me happy as it means I am scoring and the team is playing well,” Soldado told Spanish television.
Ambitious Qatar-owned Malaga, one of the biggest spenders in the transfer market in the close season, dropped to seventh, level on 24 points with Sevilla, who were thrashed 6-2 by Real on Saturday, but behind the Andalusians on goal difference.
Surprise packages Osasuna, who have won four of their last five matches, climbed to fifth on 25 points thanks to Sunday's 2-1 win against Villarreal in Pamplona.
Atletico's impatient fans have been voicing their frustration with Manzano and the club's board and Sunday's 2-0 reverse at home to Real Betis left Madrid's second club in 10th and their coach, known as 'the professor', in serious peril.
Manzano, in his second stint in charge at Atletico, said he had not considered stepping down.
“If I had seen that the team did not have strength, if I had seen that the team did not have soul, commitment and intensity we would all be more concerned,” he told a news conference.
“You have to look at the attitude of the players and the effort they put in,” he added. “Today's result was not a just one.”
In Sunday's other game, Racing Santander drew 0-0 at home to fellow strugglers Real Sociedad.