Atletico Madrid stay top in Spain

Hard-fought win over Villarreal keeps Atletico ahead for at least one more week

 Atletico Madrid’s players celebrate the opening goal against Villarreal. Photograph: EPA

Atletico Madrid’s players celebrate the opening goal against Villarreal. Photograph: EPA


Atletico Madrid remained firmly on course for a surprise La Liga title triumph when Raul Garcia’s header secured a 1-0 win for the leaders at home to seventh-placed Villarreal.

Lionel Messi scored twice for Barcelona in a laboured 3-1 home victory over bottom side Real Betis as the champions stayed hard on Atletico’s heels, a point behind with six matches left including a clash between the sides at the Nou Camp on the final day of the season.

Atletico have 79 points from 32 matches, three more than their tally from last season when they finished third. Barca have 78 and Real Madrid are five points behind in third ahead of their game at sixth-placed Real Sociedad later on Saturday.

Atletico were missing top scorer Diego Costa and playmaker Arda Turan through injury but dispatched Villarreal with an efficient performance in front of their boisterous fans enjoying the club’s best campaign since they last won Spain’s domestic league in 1996.

Garcia nodded in a Koke corner in the 14th minute at a packed Calderon and the home side comfortably soaked up sustained Villarreal pressure in the second half.

Argentine coach Diego Simeone has transformed Atletico into genuine contenders in Spain and Europe since taking over at the end of 2011 despite the club commanding about a fifth of the resources of wealthier rivals Barca and Real, the world’s richest teams by income.

Atletico and Barca are locked at 1-1 in their Champions League quarter-final after Tuesday’s first leg at the Nou Camp and play the return in Madrid on Wednesday.

“I am running out of words to continue congratulating the players for their effort and commitment,” Simeone told a news conference.

“Now we have to focus on the Champions League, it’s important for the club,” added the former Argentina captain. “Hopefully we can recover well in these next four days.”

Barca were well short of their best against a Betis side who showed impressive fight despite being eight points adrift at the bottom and having little chance of avoiding relegation.

Messi scored his first from the penalty spot in the 15th minute after Betis defender Jordi Figueras brought down Alexis Sanchez.

Barca were unable to convert long periods of possession into goals and were fortunate to go 2-0 ahead when Figueras deflected the ball into his own net in the 67th.

Betis set Barca nerves jangling two minutes later when they hit back through substitute Ruben Castro before Messi netted his second four minutes from time after defender Antonio Amaya handled in the area and the referee awarded another penalty.

Goalkeeper Adan saved the Argentina captain’s initial shot but he put the rebound into the net for his 25th La Liga goal of an injury-disrupted campaign.

Atletico are guaranteed at least a third-placed finish, and qualification for next term’s edition of Europe’s elite club competition, as they are 23 points ahead of fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao before the Basque club’s game at Levante on Monday.

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