MADRID – Superstar forward Antoine Griezmann led Atletico Madrid to a 1-0 victory on Saturday over Rayo Vallecano, a result that gets the club back on track in La Liga.
Atletico came out eager for a win after having lost their last two Spanish-league games against Real Betis and Real Madrid, but instead it was the home side that created the best two scoring chances of the first half.
Winger Adrian Embarba posed the threat both times, but goalkeeper Jan Oblak caught the first shot in the 26th minute before clearing away the second for a corner at the 35-minute mark.
Atletico was out of sorts at that stage of the contest, with midfielders Vitolo and Rodri giving the ball away on multiple occasions and the visitors lacking intensity as a unit.
The best scoring chance for Diego Simeone’s men in the first half came with six minutes to go before stoppage time, when Brazilian left back Filipe Luis sent a cross into the area.
But even though Rayo goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski was out of position at the near post, no Atletico player was there to put the ball home.
Atletico came out more aggressively after the intermission and opted to employ a high press, but they were unable to penetrate the home side’s defensive wall when they gained possession.
Simeone, who this week extended his contract as Atletico’s head coach through 2022, made two changes at the one-hour mark when he inserted French midfielder Thomas Lemar and Spanish forward Diego Costa, who made his first appearance since sustaining a foot injury and then undergoing surgery on Dec. 5.
The Brazilian-born player, who had played for Rayo for six months during the 2011-2012 season, received a standing ovation from the home fans when he took the field as a replacement for Vitolo.
But the visitors continued to struggle offensively in the ensuing minutes despite playing with three forwards, while Rayo striker Raul de Tomas twice received the ball unmarked in an attacking position.
Ironically, however, Atletico notched the lone goal of the match when all appeared to be in Rayo’s favor.
In the 73rd minute, Alvaro Morata collected a high ball and set it up for Griezmann, who fired a shot that was slightly deflected by center back Jordi Amat before traveling into the back of the net.
Rayo then had two chances to equalize as the minutes ticked away: one on a long range shot by Portuguese midfielder Bebe and the other on a header by Senegalese defender Abdoulaye Ba that Oblak saved.
With the win, Atletico have provisionally climbed into the second spot in La Liga table with 47 points and are two points ahead of Real Madrid, who will take on Girona on Sunday.