Football: Atletico grind out Levante win to march into third

Levante's Portuguese defender Ruben Vezo (L) vies with Atletico Madrid's Spanish forward Diego Costa. PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (AFP) - Atletico Madrid continued their surge towards Champions League qualification on Tuesday (June 23) by winning 1-0 at Levante to climb to third in La Liga.

Since matches restarted in Spain almost two weeks ago, Atletico have taken 10 points from a possible 12 and moved six points clear of fifth, as their top-four rivals have crumbled around them.

One of them is Getafe, who continued their post-suspension slump as they were held to a 1-1 draw against struggling Real Valladolid. Getafe are fifth but without a win in the four games since La Liga resumed.

Atletico have been among the clubs worst affected financially by the coronavirus pandemic and they would reportedly stand to lose €200 million (S$300 million) if they missed out on the Champions League next season.

But while their place in the top four looked in serious danger three months ago, Atletico's return to form means they are now firm favourites to finish third, let alone fourth.

Marcos Llorente, the hero of their momentous victory over Liverpool in the Champions League, has flourished in his new role in attacking midfield and it was his turn and cross that was turned in by Bruno Gonzalez for an own goal on 15 minutes.

Diego Simeone's side had plenty of chances to make the win more comfortable in the second half but instead Levante threatened an equaliser late on, with Atletico having to hang on for the victory.

Yet this has been the kind of gritty performance, so often associated with Simeone's side, so lacking this season, especially away from home, where their results have been particularly unreliable.

They started fast and took the lead when Thomas Partey's free-kick hit the wall and the follow-up was slid into Llorente. He collected, twisted and turned into the penalty area in one smooth action before pulling a cute ball back that was turned in by Bruno under pressure from Diego Costa.

Thomas smashed in off the crossbar after half-time but Costa was offside while Levante's best chance fell to Roger Marti at the back post but he failed to connect cleanly.

Atletico clung on and their victory was made sweeter by Getafe slipping up at Valladolid, where Enes Unal's penalty in the fifth minute of added time at the end of the first half rescued a valuable point for the home side.

Jaime Mata had put Getafe in front by firing in at the near post.

Valladolid are 15th, seven points clear of the relegation zone. Levante stay 11th.

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