Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco each conjured moments of magic as Atletico Madrid recaptured top spot in La Liga from Barcelona with a hard-fought 2-0 victory at Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Chances were scarce on a heavy Balaidos stadium pitch sodden with rain but Griezmann and Carrasco both scored excellent goals to lift Atletico two points clear of Barcelona.
Luis Enrique’s champions won 4-0 at home to Granada on Saturday and have a game in hand over their main rivals, at the halfway stage of the season.
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Griezmann sent Luciano Vietto clear on the left four minutes into the second half and raced into the penalty area to sidefoot the Argentine’s low centre past stranded Celta goalkeeper Sergio Alvarez, the France forward’s 10th goal of the campaign.
With fifth-placed Celta pressing for an equaliser, substitute Carrasco, a Belgium international, picked up a loose ball 10 minutes from time and galloped forward before cracking a shot high into the net.
Atletico, who have conceded a mere eight goals, have 44 points from 19 matches, with Barca on 42 from 18 games.
Real Madrid are two points further back in third after they hammered Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 at the Bernabeu on Saturday in Zinedine Zidane’s debut as coach.
“We knew it would be a tough game as Celta play the ball around well,” Griezmann told Spanish television.
“But we were strong at the back and we know that when we have chances up front we can score at any moment,” he added.
“At the back and in attack we are doing things well and we have to keep it going.”
Villarreal stayed hard on the heels of the top three when a Cedric Bakambu double secured a 2-0 win at home to promoted Sporting Gijon earlier on Sunday as Gary Neville was again denied a debut victory with Valencia in Spain’s top flight.
Villarreal occupy Spain’s fourth Champions League qualification berth, the position Valencia’s billionaire owner Peter Lim would at the least have expected to be in at this stage of the campaign.
However, Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Real Sociedad means Neville has presided over three draws and two defeats in five La Liga outings, including a 1-0 reverse at Villarreal, since he took over from Nuno Espirito Santo last month.
Congo forward Bakambu opened the scoring for Villarreal in the 26th minute at the Madrigal when he tapped in Roberto Soldado’s pass and doubled the home side’s lead six minutes into the second half with a curling effort that went in off a post.
Coached by Marcelino Garcia, Villarreal are through to the last 32 of this season’s Europa League and play their first leg at home to Italian side Napoli on Feb. 18.
With 39 points in La Liga, they are eight points clear of Celta, who have lost their last three league games.
Eibar moved up to sixth thanks to a 2-1 victory at home to Espanyol, while Malaga could only manage a 1-1 draw at promoted Las Palmas and are 10th.
Marcelino said Villarreal, who spent a season in the second division in 2012-13 and have finished sixth the past two campaigns, were “more competitive” this term.
“We have been improving all the time since we returned to the first division,” he told a news conference.
“I am proud of what we have achieved in the first half of the season,” added the former Real Zaragoza and Sevilla manager. “Let’s see if we can maintain this level.”
A quickfire Jonathas double at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian secured victory for Sociedad against Valencia in a match in which both sides wasted a host of chances.
The Basque side took the lead in the 79th minute when Jonathas bundled in a deflected Carlos Martinez cross and the Brazilian made it 2-0 three minutes later with a powerful header from another Martinez centre.
Valencia, who play Rapid Vienna in the Europa League next month, have 23 points in 11th, while Sociedad climbed to 14th on 20 points.
“It was extremely important to finish off the first half of the season with three points,” Jonathas, who has struggled for form since joining from Elche in July last year, told Spanish television.
“I am thrilled with the two goals as I have been through a tough time but the club has always backed me,” he added.