Sevilla 1-0 Atletico Madrid
Easter night in La Liga and the match of the weekend as leaders Atletico Madrid took their title tilt to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville.
The fourth-placed hosts have proved they can beat most sides on their day since winning a record sixth Europa League last summer.
Likewise, Los Rojiblancos have taken advantage of below-par Real Madrid and Barcelona this season to open up a lead at the summit.
After recent wobbles for both teams, something would have to give as the run-in to the 2020-21 campaign began in earnest.
Highlights of the game
The table-toppers were without key men.
Stefan Savic – arguably the most important defender in the spine of their team this term – was unable to play for the visitors due to sickness, while Atletico were also missing the suspended Yannick Carrasco and injured Joao Felix.
Whether they realised five of their starting line-up were one booking away from suspension is unknown but, with points the priority and coach Diego Simeone having a fairly small squad, there was no chance he was going to rest players for such an important fixture.
Sevilla was actually the first club that Simeone played for in Spain and, since becoming a coach, he has had a good record against his former side, losing only three of 22 meetings, with only one defeat in the league.
With Real Madrid winning on Easter Saturday, the gap at the top had been closed to three points, putting some pressure on their city rivals.
From the outset, that pressure was clear as Sevilla were the stronger side.
Just seven minutes in and they had a great chance to take the lead as Saul fouled Ivan Rakitic but, for the second match in succession, Jan Oblak – arguably the best goalkeeper in world football right now – saved the spot-kick, parrying Lucas Ocampos’ penalty.
Oblak was alert again later in the half to deny the same player as Julen Lopetegui’s men were on top without creating any decisive La Liga highlights.
After that dominant start, Atletico finally came into the game without creating any chances of note, although their personnel issues weren’t helped 11 minutes before the break when Renan Lodi was forced off with injury and had to be replaced by Angel Correa.
Even without fans, the tension in contests like this must be tangible when a side is chasing a first title in seven years and has seen a fairly healthy lead eaten away during a less than convincing period shortly before the international break.
That Atletico went in at the break still level may have helped Simeone’s team talk as his side had been distinctly second best.
They showed more in the opening minute of the second half than they had in the previous 45 as Luis Suarez came close to reaching a Correa cross, yet it was Sevilla who went close again a few minutes later as Rakitic fired over from a difficult angle.
When Suarez was booked, meaning he will be banned for Atletico’s next game, the importance of grabbing a winner in this contest became even clearer, although with an hour played it remained too close to call.
The first goal was always likely to be crucial but when it arrived it meant another twist for the Sbotop La Liga betting odds.
Jesus Navas crossed into the danger zone and there was Marcos Acuna to head back across goal.
As Atletico appealed for handball against Ocampos, VAR ruled the player had handled the ball but much earlier in the build-up and the goal stood.
Atletico tried to hit back and were almost level only for Mario Hermoso to fire over when well placed.
How the below-par leaders needed a goal to boost spirits and ensure Barcelona could not close the gap to a point tomorrow night.
Yet in truth, they rarely looked like scoring until the final minute when Suarez played in Correa and the Argentine’s volley was kept out by goalkeeper Bono.
While Atletico remain in control of their own destiny, the title momentum is now very much in the hands of Barca, who they must travel to on May 9.
Only Diego Alves (10 out of 20) has saved more penalties than Oblak (9/29) among La Liga goalkeepers (excluding shootouts) since the start of 2014/15.
This was Julen Lopetegui’s first success against Simeone in six attempts.
This was only Simeone’s second league defeat in 23 matches against Sevilla in all competitions (won 10, drawn nine). The other two losses have both come in the Copa del Rey.
Sevilla go to Celta Vigo a week on Monday in La Liga (April 12), whereas Atletico’s title challenge continues on the road with a trip to Real Betis next Sunday evening.
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