Artem Dovbyk scored a hat-trick within seven minutes to propel Girona back to the top of La Liga with a 5-1 victory against Sevilla on Sunday.
Girona underlined their championship credentials as Real Madrid salvaged a contentious 3-2 victory over bottom-place Almeria and Barcelona won 4-2 at Real Betis thanks to a triple from Ferran Torres.
The Catalan club, which is only in the top flight for the fourth time in its history, is a surprise contender for the Spanish crown and leads second-place Madrid by a point after playing one more game.
Madrid’s triumph against winless Almeria, which put them briefly first before Girona played, was fraught with drama and controversy.
Dani Carvajal scored the winner in the 99th minute to end a frantic and thrilling match at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Madrid trailed 2-0.
Almeria seized a two-goal lead thanks to Largie Ramazani’s score in the 38th minute and Edgar Gonzalez’s screamer.
Madrid rallied to win after Jude Bellingham converted a penalty and Vinicius Junior used his upper arm to direct home an equaliser, followed by Carvajal’s late winner.
Madrid received three critical VAR decisions in their favour, including Vinicius’ goal, which Almeria believed handball, a goal of their own being ruled out, and a penalty awarded to Madrid.
“(We leave) with the feeling we’ve been robbed,” said Almeria midfielder Gonzalo Melero.
Real Madrid’s coach, Carlo Ancelotti, disagreed.
“I understand Almeria’s frustration with the VAR decisions, but I believe they were well-judged,” Ancelotti told reporters.
Madrid won the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday by thumping Barcelona in Saudi Arabia before losing 4-2 to Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey in midweek.
“It was a tired team,” Ancelotti remarked, adding that the first half performance was forgettable.
Madrid rallied after that, with Bellingham, La Liga’s joint top scorer, leading the way, and Dovbyk scoring from the penalty spot for his 14th goal of the season.
After Vinicius drew level, Bellingham had a goal disallowed for offside and blasted a stunning overhead kick barely wide.
The England international assisted in the winning goal by tipping the ball to the back post for Carvajal to slam home and trigger wild celebrations after another amazing Madrid comeback.
Barcelona, third, squandered a two-goal lead against Betis but recovered to remain in the championship chase.
Torres scored twice to put Barcelona ahead, but they lost the advantage when former Real Madrid playmaker Isco scored twice.
Joao Felix scored expertly in the 90th minute, and Torres added another goal to win victory for the Catalans, who trail neighbours Girona by eight points.
Torres, who has made 100 appearances for Barcelona since signing from Manchester City two years ago, was determined, saying he had fought hard for his chance.
“It’s the fruit of hard work, discipline, consistency, and believing in yourself,” Torres told Movistar.
Barcelona gave rookie defender Pau Cubarsi his first start, and with Lamine Yamal also in the lineup, the club fielded two 16-year-olds.
‘Everyone saw it.’
Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez was happy with their efforts, but he also expressed dissatisfaction over the refereeing in Madrid’s victory.
“If we talk they will suspend us, but everybody has seen it,” he stated.
“As I already said, there were several aspects of this league that did not work for me.
“There are things that we can’t control and everyone has seen that.”
At Girona’s Montilivi stadium, struggling Sevilla, 17th and barely a point above the relegation zone, grabbed a surprise lead thanks to Isaac Romero.
However, Dovbyk’s fast triple between the 13th and 19th minutes allowed Michel Sanchez’s dazzling team to seize complete control.
Ukrainian compatriot Viktor Tsygankov scored early in the second half, and substitute Cristhian Stuani sealed the victory.
“We’re not conscious of how hard it is to do this, because of the feelings that we have, you can see it in our happiness on the pitch,” Portu, who plays for Girona, said.
“Day to day here is spectacular, the ones who are playing the least (in the squad) are the ones who are supporting the team the most, you can see the happiness.”