Atletico Madrid stayed in charge of La Liga’s four-way title race by earning a nerve-shredding 1-0 victory at struggling Elche on Saturday, riding their luck to the extreme when the hosts missed a penalty in stoppage time.
Marcos Llorente scored the only goal with a deflected shot in the 23rd minute but gave away the penalty in the 90th after a careless handball as Atleti defended a free kick after sitting on their slim lead rather than looking to put the game to bed.
Elche midfielder Fidel Chaves’s spot kick beat goalkeeper Jan Oblak but came off the post, providing another twist in an action-packed game in which Atletico had two goals ruled out for offside and a penalty award taken away following a VAR review.
Fidel‘s spurned penalty threw Diego Simeone’s side a lifeline in a thrilling title race while leaving Elche still 18th and in the relegation zone. They would have moved out of the drop zone if Fidel had scored from the spot.
“We’re moving into a defining moment and every victory is really important. We had a great first half, among the best we’ve had lately, and it should have been a bigger lead,” said Simeone.
The win took Atletico to 76 points with four games left, five clear of second-placed Real Madrid, who host Osasuna later on Saturday, and third-placed Barcelona, who visit Valencia on Sunday. Sevilla, on 70 points, host Athletic Bilbao on Monday.
“It was our obligation to win today. It was really important for everyone. The team knew how to get ahead in the game, at this stage of the season everyone has a lot to play for, there are teams playing to get into Europe, to not go down, to win the league, every team is giving everything. The team got the three points today which was the important thing,” said Llorente.
It was the second time this season Atleti had benefitted from their opponents squandering a late penalty, with Oblak saving from Alaves’ Joselu to secure a 1-0 home win in March.
It was also the second stroke of fortune in three days for Atletico, who sank to a chastening 2-1 defeat at Athletic Bilbao last week and looked set to lose top spot to Barca, who then fell to a shock 2-1 loss at home to Granada on Thursday.
Simeone added that he was confident that Oblak would rise to the occasion.
“After the miss, the happiness was like scoring a goal,” Oblak said.
Atletico went on the attack early on against Elche and should have taken the lead after a slick move between Angel Correa and Luis Suarez, who could only find the side-netting.
Suarez did manage to put the ball in the net soon after following a move with Llorente but was left frustrated again when the goal was ruled out after a VAR review for a fractional offside.
The Uruguayan missed the target early in the second half and then had a second goal chalked off, this time for a clear offside.
Suarez was replaced by midfielder Saul late on as Simeone sought to protect Atletico’s lead.
The move almost backfired but, somehow, his side are still in pole position in the title race.