Saul Niguez gave away a goal just after the start of the second half, then redeemed himself by helping set up an equalizer for Jose Maria Gimenez before heading the match-winner as Atletico Madrid ended a run of poor results with a vital 3-1 victory over Eibar Saturday afternoon.
When Saul’s misplay of a simple ball allowed Keko Gontan, to give Eibar a 1-0 lead the Vicente Calderon crowd must have wondered if there was to be still more misery for their favorites, who had not won in their last four matches.
His 63rd minute header ended that drought and allowed Atletico move back level on points with Barcelona, although their stay as joint-top of La Liga is tenuous, at best. Barcelona, the leaders on goal-difference, play Sunday at Levante and also have a match in hand over their closest challenger, so remain very strongly-placed in the title race. Both leaders are four points clear of Real Madrid, who are Granada on Sunday.
Perhaps most satisfying for the home fans, Fernando Torres made a sprightly 15-minute cameo appearance in his return from an injury-enforced absence scoring in stoppage time to signal that he may soon be back to his best.
Eibar, making an unexpected challenge for a spot in Europe next season, stayed eighth, three points behind fifth-place Sevilla and one back Athletic Bilbao and Celta Vigo in the battle for the Europa League spots.
Atletico boss Diego Simeone was forced into a major team shuffle due to suspensions and injuries coming off last weekend’s loss at Barcelona. Filipe Luis and Juanfran missed Saturday because of suspension while Diego Godin (knee), Augusto Fernandez (knee) and Stefan Savic (thigh) were all unavailable due to injury.
In addition, the club sold unsettled striker Jackson Martinez to Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande in midweek; although he had contributed little this season, that still reduced Simeone’s options up front.
As a result there were starts for Jesus Gamez, Gimenez, Lucas, Thomas Partey and Angel Correa while Yannick Ferreira Carrasco also was in the lineup instead of being available for his usual second half substitute’s role. The visiting Basque club was also missing a key regular, Borja Baston (15 goals in 21 starts) because he is on loan from Atletico and therefore unavailable for the match. Sergei Enrich took the striker spot.
The rebuilt backline cost Atletico immediately after a turgid, scoreless opening half, the horrid mistake at the back by Saul opening the way for Keko to score. The Atletico defender got his feet tangled up while trying to handle a routine ball at his 18-yard line and was dispossesed by Enrich. With Keko coming down the middle it created a 2-on-1 chance which Keko finished neatly from 18 yards after Enrich slid him the pass.
Eibar’s lead lasted just nine minutes and Saul had a part to play in the equalizer. It was his header that was touched over the bar to create the corner from which Gimenez had the simplest of tasks to nod in the equalizer. Koke’s delivery swung in from the left, Gimenez came completely unmarked through the inside left channel and was practically on the goal line when he headed home.
After his side got level, Simeone tried to ignite the sputtering attack on the hour. Oliver Torres and Luciano Vietto came on for Partey and Correa, neither of whom had been particularly effective.
Three minutes later it was Vietto whose cross was blocked to set up another corner from which Saul put his side ahead. Again Koke took the corner, this time aiming for the six-yard line; Saul got very high, beating Gonzalo Escalante with the effort, then powering in his header.
Fernando Torres timed his step forward perfectly to meet a cross from Vietto to finish the job two minutes into stoppage to write a perfect finish to the script.
Rayo Vallecano 2, Las Palmas 0
Rayo Vallecano climbed out of the Primera Division relegation zone after beating fellow strugglers Las Palmas 2-0.
Miku bundled the ball in after just four minutes to give Rayo the lead, while former Manchester United winger Bebe finished off a classy move in the second half to seal the points.
Paco Jemez’s side move up to 14th place in the Primera Division after beginning the day in 18th and stretch their unbeaten run to four matches, while Las Palmas drop into the bottom three.
Rayo have a habit of coming on strong in the latter half of the season and this was their second consecutive home win, building on impressive away draws at Valencia and Deportivo.
They got off to a perfect start when Bebe raced on to a long ball down the left and went for goal, Javi Varas was unable to properly parry it properly and Miku scrappily stabbed it in from one yard out while on the ground.
Rayo built on their strong start and dominated the first half but could not add to their advantage, and they nearly lived to regret it in the second period.
The visitors improved and came close to levelling on two occasions, Juan Carlos Valeron heading over from a corner and Rayo goalkeeper Juan Carlos tipping a shot from Willian Jose over.
But Bebe wrapped up the win for the hosts in the 73rd minute, smashing the ball in after Miku had teed him up with a clever back heel.