MADRID, April 27: Atletico Madrid took another huge step towards their first La Liga title in 18 years with a 1-0 win away to Valencia on Sunday.
Raul Garcia got the only goal of the game just before half-time to secure a ninth straight league win and move Los Rojiblancos within two more victories of sealing the championship with three games remaining.
Victory takes Atletico six points clear of Real Madrid having played a game more and seven ahead of Barcelona, who can cut the gap with a win away to Villarreal later on Sunday.
Despite the second leg of his side’s Champions League semi-final against Chelsea being just three days away, Atletico boss Diego Simeone named a strong side with David Villa and Tiago coming into the side that started the first leg against the English side in midweek.
Valencia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi also didn’t rotate his side too much despite this game coming in between the two legs of their Europa League semi-final against Sevilla and he was rewarded by a bright start by the hosts.
Paco Alcacer flashed a shot just past Thibaut Courtois’ right-hand post in the opening minute, but thereafter Valencia struggled to find a way through Atletico’s solid defence.
The visitors slowly began to work themselves into the game and Villa was inches away from a spectacular goal against his former club as his shot from outside the box swerved just off target.
Koke then struck a mishit volley over the bar when well-placed inside the area, while at the other end Pablo Piatti’s low shot was easily collected by Courtois.
Atletico made the vital breakthrough two minutes before half-time when Gabi’s lofted ball into the area picked out the run of Garcia and he cushioned a header in off the inside of the post to register his 17th goal of the season.
Diego Costa should have put the game to bed six minutes into the second half when he was played clean through on goal, but he delayed his shot and allowed Vicente Guaita to save with an outstretched leg.
The league leaders then had to survive a nervous final half hour as Valencia pinned them back in the search of an equaliser.
Filipe Luis did well to divert Sofiane Feghouli’s header wide at the back post and the Algerian midfielder came close again moments later when his rasping shot flew just wide of the far post.
Costa had another great chance to seal the three points five minutes from time, but again Guaita did enough to deny the Spanish international as he tried to round the ‘keeper.
Atletico ended the game with 10 men as Juanfran saw a straight red card for cynically scything down Piatti as Valencia threatened to counter-attack deep into stoppage time.
However, it mattered little as Simeone’s men saw out the remaining final seconds without any scares to move ever closer to the title.