Substitutes Teye Thomas and Angel Correa combined in the 88th minute as Atletico Madrid finally broke down stubborn Rayo Vallecano, Correa scoring the goal which opened the door to an eventual 2-0 victory that pushed Atletico to the top of La Liga Wednesday evening.
Correa was sent in on the right by Thomas to drill home the goal which broke the hearts of their relegation-threatened rivals, then Jackson Martinez created an opening for Antoine Griezmann to add a second goal a two minutes later as the final scoreline flattered the visitors.
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Atletico moved two points above Real Madrid, which won earlier in the day, but remain behind Barcelona after the Spanish champs defeated Real Betis 4-0 on Wednesday night. Barca also have a game in hand on both Madrid teams because of its FIFA World Club Cup duties before the holiday break.
Atletico, which had missed a chance to go top of the table when they lost 1-0 to Malaga in their last match before the holiday weekend break, arrived at the Estadio Vallecas with the best defense (8 goals allowed) in La Liga. Although Rayo was not shy about countering, they offered little real threat to that Atleti record.
In stark contrast, Rayo has the worst (now 39 goals allowed) defensive mark in La Liga and was coming off a 10-2 drubbing against Real Madrid, a game where they played with nine men after two first half sendings-off. This time they were solid at the back, worked hard in midfield to limit chances and were good value for their performance until the cruel late goals denied them a point that once seemed almost certain.
The first half was relatively uneventful, Atletico having a slight territorial edge but neither team able to mount consistent pressure or force the goalkeepers to be anything but workmanlike. Fernando Torres saw little of the ball, his best chance coming in the 27th minute when he stabbed a shot into the ground and saw Yoel parry it away when it headed toward goal.
The dour struggle continued with Torres unable to find his 100th goal for Atletico before being replaced by Thomas just past the hour. Atletico boss Diego Simeone then sent on Martinez, still looking to make a major impression wtih his new club, who did help Griezmann finish the contest.
Diego Godin had come closest to breaking the deadlock in the 75th minute but Yoel reacted to his header-on to a free kick and parried at his right-hand post. The keeper was stranded, however, when Thomas spotted Correa with room to advance before slamming in a 12-yard shot. Griezmann was open on the left to neatly lob the ball over Yoel two minutes later.
The match was the first of three meetings between the sides over the next two weeks because they are paired together in the Copa del Rey. After hosting Levante in La Liga on Saturday, Atletico will again make the short trip to the Estadio Vallecas for the first leg of their cup tie on Wednesday. The return match comes up a week later at the Vicente Calderon.
SEVILLA 2, ESPANYOL 0
Sevilla continue on their prolific run of form at home after downing Espanyol 2-0 at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
Ciro Immobile slid in to meet a cross from Vitolo to open the scoring after 16 minutes and then Ever Banega added a second shortly before the break to put Unai Emery's men on their way to a seventh consecutive league win. The Andalusian side temporarily move ahead of Athletic Bilbao and up to seventh place in the Primera Division, while Espanyol remain 13th in the table, with new coach Constantin Galca tasting defeat in his second game in charge following a 1-0 success over Las Palmas before the Christmas break.
Immobile was the liveliest player on the pitch in the early stages and looked on a mission to add to his tally of one goal since joining Sevilla on loan from Borussia Dortmund in the summer, firing over the bar within minutes of kick off and then forcing Pau Lopez into a save.
It was not long before he was rewarded for his industry, racing to the far post to slide on the ground and poke home Vitolo's cross, a move made possible by a clever through ball from Banega. The Argentine was then rewarded for his earlier vision, collecting the ball from Danilo and shuffling his way into the box before calmly sliding the ball through the legs of Lopez.
Inspired by the energy of Immobile, Sevilla also dominated the second half but were unable to find more goals, with Lopez forced to make further saves to prevent a drubbing.
Information from FOXSoccer.com's newswire services contributed to this report.