Radamel Falcao’s goal 14 minutes from time was enough to move Atletico Madrid back to within three points of neighbors Real Madrid as they ground out a 1-0 win at Sevilla.
The goal arrived in controversial circumstances because referee Jose Luis Gonzalez did not spot a handball by Mario Suarez in the build-up and Falcao was on hand to get the faintest of touches to Raul Garcia’s driven cross.
However, there was a set-back for Atletico, because Diego Costa was booked in the second half and will now miss the Madrid derby against Real on Saturday.
“He was on four yellow cards and this can happen, but the important thing is that we won,” Atletico boss Diego Simeone said.
Simeone was also delighted with what he sees as a huge step toward guaranteeing Champions League soccer next season.
“The team has been working for it since the start of the season, and despite the absence of Arda [Turan,] and without Tiago, the team has responded,” he said. “I am proud of these guys. It is a big victory. There are fewer games left and the objective is closer.”
In a game marked more by late challenges than great soccer, it was Atletico who started the brightest, with Suarez firing just over six minutes in.
However, in a challenge that summed up the frantic nature of the game, Atletico were lucky to still have 11 players on the field five minutes later, when Falcao was shown just a yellow card when he caught Cala with a stray elbow as they challenged for a long ball down the middle.
The intense nature of the game continued after the break, but Thibaut Courtois was forced into his first serious save of the game three minutes after the restart as he got down quickly to parry Coke’s powerful downward header from Jesus Navas’ cross.
Costa then got his inevitable booking for stupidly complaining and was sensibly replaced by Simeone soon after with Adrian taking his place alongside Falcao in attack.
Adrian went on to play a crucial part in the only goal of the game, when after Suarez’s handball went unnoticed, he chipped a lovely ball to the back post that was smashed across goal by Garcia and turned home by Falcao.
Sevilla pushed in vein for a late equalizer, but Courtois made another fine save to turn over Negredo’s header from close range and Ivan Rakitic was desperately unlucky as his free-kick clipped the bar on its way over in stoppage time.
Earlier, Real Sociedad missed the chance to extend their lead over Valencia in fourth after they could only manage a 0-0 away at CA Osasuna.
Imanol Agirretxe came closest to breaking the deadlock with a first-half header that came back off the post, but in truth, neither side did enough to deserve all three points.
The point moves Sociedad two clear of Valencia, who beat Malaga 5-1 on Saturday, with the two due to play each other on Sunday in San Sebastian.
At the bottom, Athletic Bilbao eased their relegation fears with a 1-1 draw at resurgent RC Deportivo de La Coruna.
Bruno Gama opened the scoring with a wonderful strike for the hosts, before Fernando Llorente leveled with just his second league goal of the campaign a minute before halftime.
And RCD Espanyol kept up their late charge for a European place with a 2-0 win at nine-man Getafe.
Joan Verdu gave the visitors the lead before Borja Fernandez and Federico Fernandez were both sent-off for Getafe and Cristian Stuani sealed all three points 17 minutes from time.