Madrid: Barcelona and Atletico Madrid moved into La Liga’s top four on Sunday after Barca needed a late penalty to beat Elche 2-1 before Atletico beat Real Betis 3-1, Joao Felix scoring twice at Benito Villamarin.
It’s the first time Barcelona and Atletico have both met in La Liga Champions League qualifying since August.
Atletico have struggled for strength and consistency since winning the title last season, while Barca are still recovering from a financial crisis and the departure of Lionel Messi.
Still, both teams will be increasingly confident that they can now achieve their minimum objective, which is to avoid missing out on the Champions League next season and the further financial damage that would entail.
Barca are now third, level on points with fourth-placed Atletico but having played one less game. They could both imagine their chances of finishing second, with the stuttering Sevilla only seven points clear.
Atletico’s victory over Betis was particularly significant given that Betis started the day third and looked at the candidates most likely to upset the established top four.
Félix, who was once again favored over Luis Suarez, has four goals in his last four games.
“Everyone needs time. We ask Joao everything and he does it,” said Diego Simeone.
Barcelona, meanwhile, had to come from behind at the Martinez Valero after Fidel capitalized on a mistake by Pedri, only for Barca to come back strong thanks to two substitutes.
Ferran Torres turned away the hour from close before Memphis Depay netted an 84th-minute penalty after the striker had driven Elche’s Antonio Barragan into a handball.
“It looked like we were going to lose a game that we didn’t deserve to lose,” Barca coach Xavi Hernandez said. “We deserved to win by more than one goal.”
The victory continues an impressive run of form for Xavi’s side, who have not lost in the league since December and come into this fixture having scored four times in three straight games for the first time since 2017.
When Xavi was appointed in November, Barcelona were ninth.
“We have four wins in a row, that hasn’t happened for a long time, that’s a good sign,” Xavi said. “The players believe in what we are doing. We are on the right track.”
Barcelona had the best of chances in the first half, with the best of them falling on Frenkie de Jong, who raced in behind but failed to beat Edgar Badia.
Then Ousmane Dembele sprinted clear and his high shot parried De Jong, whose follow-up was cleared off the line by Diego Gonzalez.
Elche then landed a punch a minute before half-time as Barca failed to manage a direct on-field goal kick and amid the confusion Pedri returned the ball, past his own defense and even Fidel. Fidel took a touch and fired into the far corner.
Barcelona equalized on the hour mark as Dembele headed for the line and hung up a cross. Jordi Alba couldn’t catch the ball cleanly but Torres was perfectly placed to head on.
Elche were tired, Barca were pushing for a winner and in the 82nd minute they had their chance as Depay squirmed around Barragan, the ball appeared and Barragan instinctively raised his arm to meet it. Depay swept the penalty into the top corner.
Atletico were ahead after 75 seconds in Sevilla as Jan Oblak’s punt was sent over Angel Correa, who took advantage of a lethargic Betis defense to cross Felix, the striker had an easy finish.
Betis equalized in the fifth minute of added time late in the first half after Hector Herrera had the ball stolen under pressure from Youssouf Sabaly and Cristian Tello brilliantly guided the loose ball into the corner.
Felix struck again on the hour mark when Marcos Llorente raced in behind and picked out the Portuguese with a cutback before Thomas Lemar added a third with 10 minutes to go, stepping aside after an Antoine Electric Griezmann ran down the right to secure the win. AFP