Atletico Madrid see off Rayo to move top
Atletico Madrid's Uruguayan midfielder Cristian Rodriguez (L) vies with Rayo Vallecano's defender Anaitz Arbilla Zabala at Vallecas stadium in Madrid on January 26, 2014 - by Javier Soriano
David Villa gave the visitors the perfect start with his 11th goal of the season, but Diego Simeone's men were thankful to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois moments later as he saved Jonathan Viera's penalty.
Arda Turan doubled Atletico's advantage at the end of a fine team move and the Turkish midfielder was on hand to double his tally just before half-time after Viera's strike had briefly given Rayo hope.
Saul Niguez's then put through his own net under pressure from Diego Costa to make it 4-1 before Joaquin Larrivey's headed consolation rounded off the scoring.
Los Rojiblancos now lead local rivals Real Madrid by one point, but Barcelona can move back level with Atletico at the top should they beat Malaga at home later on Sunday.
With top-scorer Costa still to score in seven games in 2014, Villa's return to goalscoring form has come just at the right time and he slotted away the opener confidently from Costa's unselfish cut-back.
And Spain's all-time leading scorer was delighted to net his second goal in as many league games.
"I am very happy to be able to help the team get the victory and score a goal," said Villa.
"It is very important to continue winning, particularly away from home."
However, he insisted his side wouldn't dwell on their position atop the table as they now prepare for their Copa del Rey quarter-final, second leg away to Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday night.
"We can't think about being leaders. Now it is the time to think about the Cup and we need to keep going game by game."
Rayo had the perfect chance to level just four minutes later when Manquillo was harshly adjudged to have clipped Alberto Bueno inside the area. However, Courtois dived low to his right to palm away Viera's resulting spot-kick.
Rayo keeper Ruben Martinez then kept his side in the game with an excellent double save from Costa and Jose Sosa.
But there was nothing he could do to prevent Atletico doubling their lead on the half hour as excellent play from Costa and Sosa teed up Turan to roll into an empty net.
Viera halved the deficit nine minutes later as his shot deflected off Miranda past the helpless Courtois.
The visitors restored their two-goal cushion before half-time, though, as Turan slotted home Gabi's free-kick from a tight angle at the back post.
Costa thought his moment had arrived 16 minutes from time as he stretched to meet Filipe Luis' low cross, but the ball clipped Saul on its way into the net and was credited as an own goal.
Larrivey pulled another goal back for Rayo almost instantly from Viera's cross, but there was to be no late drama as Atletico returned to winning ways after two draws in their last two league outings.
A 15th defeat of the season leaves Rayo still rooted in the relegation zone, five points off safety.
Earlier, Athletic Bilbao continued their fine form with a 5-1 win away to Osasuna to move five points clear of Villarreal in the fight for the fourth Champions League place.