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Saul strike keeps Atletico on Barca’s tails


Atletico Madrid’s Spanish midfielder Saul Niguez celebrates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match between Real Betis and Atletico Madrid at the Benito Villamarin Stadium in Sevilla on December 10, 2017. CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

Atletico Madrid bounced back from the disappointment of being dumped out of the Champions League in midweek to keep their La Liga title challenge afloat by grinding out a 1-0 win at Real Betis on Sunday.

In the absence of top scorer Antoine Griezmann through injury, Saul Niguez once again provided a big goal for Atletico that takes Diego Simeone’s men to within three points of league leaders Barcelona.

The Catalans can though re-establish a six-point gap over Atletico in third with victory at Villarreal later on Sunday.

Betis have now won just once in the league since September as their slide continues, putting coach Quique Setien under serious pressure.

However, the hosts dominated possession throughout and were made to pay for their lack of cutting edge, as well as some fine goalkeeping by Jan Oblak.

“They played some spectacular football today, but we took advantage of the chance we had,” Atletico midfielder Koke told BeIN Sports Spain.

“It has been an intense week with the trip to London, the tension of the game, but the important thing is to win and remain near the top.”

Atletico went in front with their first serious attack on the half-hour mark as Saul slid in to meet Sime Vrsaljko’s cross.

Of the midfielder’s last 18 goals, 15 have now broken the deadlock, but unlike at Chelsea in midweek, Saul’s effort proved to be the only goal.

The visitors should have had a second moments after going ahead when Angel Correa fired straight at Antonio Adan with Kevin Gameiro better placed.

Betis posed more of a goal threat after the break as Sergio Leon drilled a dangerous ball across the face of the goal with no takers.

Oblak then produced a wonder save to turn Cristian Tello’s sweetly struck half-volley behind for a corner.

“One team had the ball, which was Betis, and they tried many different ways to damage us, but the team was very strong defensively,” said Simeone.

Atletico substitute Fernando Torres should have sealed all three points when he somehow fired over from point-blank range with just Adan to beat eight minutes from time.

However, the visitors showed why they have now gone a year without defeat away in La Liga as Atletico stood strong when faced with a barrage of Betis crosses into their box in stoppage time to record a ninth clean sheet in 15 La Liga games.

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