(Adds Valencia win)
By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid knocked Barcelona off the top of La Liga, for a day at least, as a second-half strike by Koke earned a 1-0 victory over a stubborn Malaga side on Saturday.
With Barcelona not re-starting their season until Sunday after the Christmas interlude, Atletico took advantage to move three points clear, although it was hard work for the visitors.
Atletico lacked a cutting edge against a well-marshalled Malaga defence with the league's top scorer Diego Costa having a subdued match in a misfiring attack.
Koke finally made the breakthrough, slotting the ball home after keeper Willy Caballeros saved from Adrian Lopez following good work by Costa.
"Malaga were happy for us to have the ball and play on the counter-attack. They were strong at the back," Atletico coach Diego Simeone told a news conference.
"We were finding it difficult to create openings but in the end we managed it through a team effort.
"We continue to go match by match and expect Barcelona to win tomorrow and go back to the top.
"It would be so much nicer to be in this position at the end of the season but there's a long journey ahead."
Atletico now have 49 points from 18 games although Barcelona will return to the top with victory at home against Elche.
The only bad news was that Juanfran picked up a booking and will be suspended for next week's top-of-the-table clash with Barcelona.
Real Madrid, who are eight points adrift, face Celta Vigo on Monday.
Valencia made a winning start under new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi with Pablo Piatti and Sofiane Feghouli scoring in a 2-0 victory over local rivals Levante that lifted them up to eighth place on 23 points.
They almost made the perfect start with a Feghouli's strike blocked by Keylor Navas in the opening minutes.
Piatti pounced on a loose ball to open the scoring before halftime and Feghouli's clinical finish wrapped up the points with less than 20 minutes remaining.
In the day's other match bottom club Real Betis held Real Valladolid to a 0-0 draw. (Editing by Martyn Herman and Ken Ferris)