MADRID – Atletico Madrid extended its post-pandemic-shutdown winning streak to four on Saturday with a 2-1 triumph over struggling Alaves that tightened the Colchoneros’ grip on third place in LaLiga.
Though his name won’t appear on the score sheet, Marcos Llorente, who came on as a sub in the 57th minute, was the indispensable man for Atleti, drawing the fouls that set up both goals.
Against an Alaves side worried about staying up, Atletico found itself having a lot more of the ball – 71 percent – than it is accustomed to, but struggled to create chances in front of the opposing goal until coach Diego Simeone replaced Alvaro Morata with Llorente and Angel Correa with Diego Costa.
The change bore fruit within minutes.
On his first touch, Llorente drove down the right side with a pace and intensity that left Alaves defender Adrian Marin no option but to bring him down before he could enter the box, setting up a free kick in dangerous territory.
Saul Ñiguez headed-in the kick from Kieran Trippier to put Atletico up 1-0 as the match clock approached the hour mark.
A similar scenario unfolded in the 72nd minute, when Llorente drew a foul in the box and the referee awarded a penalty.
Alaves protested, but the penalty was upheld and Costa converted to make it 2-0.
Joselu clawed one back for Alaves in the 93rd minute, scoring from the penalty spot after Atletico’s Koke was cited for a hand ball.
The result lifts the Colchoneros to 58 points, four more than fourth-place Sevilla. Alaves is 15th with 35 points, nine above the drop zone.
Earlier Saturday, Celta’s Iago Aspas scored with two minutes left in regulation to secure a 2-2 draw with Barcelona that could prove fatal to the Catalan club’s chances of outlasting Real Madrid for the LaLiga title.
While Barça is top of the league with 69 points from 32 matches, the Blancos trail by just a point and will play their 32nd game on Sunday against last-place Espanyol.
The two clubs that dominate Spanish soccer were running neck-and-neck when the season was suspended in March due to the coronavirus.
And though Real Madrid has won all of its matches since the re-start on June 8, Barcelona has now dropped points for a second time.
If there was a bright spot for the Blaugrana in Vigo, it was the play of Luis Suarez, who accounted for both of the goals, his first since what then appeared to be a season-ending knee injury in January.
The visitors started brightly and only the post prevented Gerard Pique from putting Barça up 1-0 in the fifth minute off a Lionel Messi corner kick.
Instead, the opening goal came on another Barcelona set piece 15 minutes later.
The Catalan side won a free kick not far from goal and Messi stepped up to take it. But instead of shooting, the Argentine served up a cross for Suarez in the box and the Uruguayan headed-in past Celta goalkeeper Ruben Blanco.
Celta, which would end the game with just 33 percent possession, mounted a vigorous reaction and nearly equalized on an ill-advised foray off the line by Barça keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, followed by chances for Brais Mendez and Aspas.
A takeaway in midfield five minutes into the second half allowed Celta to pull level with a goal from Fyodor Smolov, the first conceded by Ter Stegen since LaLiga returned to action.
As the contest entered the final quarter, Suarez scored his second of the night to restore the lead for Barcelona, again with an assist from Messi.
Ter Stegen denied Nolito in the 80th minute to preserve the narrow advantage, but could do nothing to deny Aspas on a free kick in the 88th.
And the German keeper was called on again in the dying seconds of stoppage time to prevent Nolito from stealing all three points for Celta, which is 16th with 34 points, eight above the drop zone.