Atletico Madrid’s faint hopes of chasing down runaway Liga leaders Barcelona suffered a fresh blow on Saturday as they were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Girona, meaning they could fall 11 points behind the Catalans by the end of the weekend.
Antoine Griezmann capitalised on a cushioned Diego Costa header to volley Atletico ahead in the 34th minute and score for the first time in five league games, but Liga debutants Girona have caused problems for the top teams all season and hit back.
With one eye on next week’s King’s Cup quarter-final second leg against Sevilla, Simeone withdrew Costa after 61 minutes and Griezmann after 71 and Girona did not take long to capitalise on the reduced attacking threat.
Visiting striker Portu slid in to beat goalkeeper Jan Oblak in the 73rd minute after Atletico midfielder Koke failed to properly clear the danger in the area and the ball landed at the feet of Bernardo Espinoza who played it through.
Atletico were fortunate not to have Oblak sent off late on when the Slovenian rushed out of his area and brought down Kenyan forward Michael Olunga but was only shown a yellow card.
Diego Simeone’s second-placed side have 43 points from 20 games but Barca can stretch their advantage if they win at Real Betis on Sunday, while third-placed Valencia could move level with Atletico if they beat Las Palmas away later on Saturday.
“It’s hard to explain the substitutions because people will just look at the result,” Simeone said.
“Costa had discomfort in his muscles in the first half and I preferred to take him off so he didn’t get injured. I took off Griezmann because I thought the game was under control and Koke could give us an extra hand in the middle to provide passes to (Kevin) Gameiro but that didn’t happen.”
Sevilla coach Vincenzo Montella earned his first win in La Liga at the third attempt earlier on Saturday as his impressive side secured a 3-0 win at Espanyol to go fifth in the standings.
Franco Vazquez knocked in a loose ball on the rebound after a well crafted move to put Sevilla in front in the 15th minute, the first time they had taken the lead in a Liga game under the Italian coach, who succeeded Eduardo Berizzo in December.
Pablo Sarabia added another before halftime and Luis Muriel rounded off the victory with a late third.
Sevilla lost to Real Betis and Alaves in their first two Liga games under Montella but were lifted by a late fightback that saw them beat Atletico 2-1 in the King’s Cup on Wednesday.
On Saturday, Montella’s side doubled their advantage against Espanyol in the 34th minute with a scorching run through the defence and a top corner finish by midfielder Sarabia.
Espanyol, who defeated city rivals Barcelona 1-0 in their King’s Cup first leg in midweek, improved after the interval and should have pulled a goal back when Leo Baptistao received the ball unmarked from close range but sent it flying over the bar.
Sevilla’s Colombia forward Muriel netted the third goal in the 90th minute with an impressive run past three defenders in the box and a powerful finish.
Sevilla, who face Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League, now have 32 points although Villarreal could climb back above them when they host Levante later on Saturday.