Barcelona and Atletico return to top four in La Liga

Barcelona and Atletico Madrid rejoined the top four of La Liga on Sunday after Barca needed a late penalty to beat Elche 2-1 before Atletico defeated Real Betis 3-1, Joao Felix scored twice at the Benito Villamarin.

It is the first time since August that Barcelona and Atlético are both in La Liga’s Champions League qualifiers.

Atletico have struggled for solidity 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 goal of missing out on the Champions League next season and the further financial damage that would cause.

Barca are now third, level on points with Atletico in fourth, but have played one game less. They may both be excited about their chances of finishing second, with Sevilla stuttering just seven points ahead.

Atletico’s win over Betis was particularly significant as Betis started the day third and saw the most likely candidates to upset the established top four.

Felix, who was again preferred over Luis Suarez, has scored four goals in his last four games.

“Everyone needs time. We ask everything from Joao and he does it,” said Diego Simeone.

Meanwhile, Barcelona had to catch up with the Martinez Valero after Fidel took advantage of a Pedri foul, but Barca stormed back thanks to two substitutes.

Ferran Torres went in from close range in the hour before Memphis Depay scored an 84th-minute penalty after Elche striker Antonio Barragan pulled into a handball.

“It looked like we were going to lose a game we didn’t deserve to lose,” said Barca coach Xavi Hernandez. “We deserved the win with more than one goal.”

The win continues an impressive lineup for Xavi’s side, who haven’t lost in the league since December, scoring four goals in three consecutive games in this match for the first time since 2017.

When Xavi was appointed in November, Barcelona was in ninth.

– ‘On the right path’ –

“We’ve had four wins in a row, this hasn’t happened in a long time, it’s a good sign,” said Xavi. “The players believe in what we are doing. We are on the right track.”

Barcelona had the most chances in the first half, the best of which fell on Frenkie de Jong, who shot in but failed to beat Edgar Badia.

Then Ousmane Dembele sprinted clear and his recorded shot was parried at De Jong, whose follow-up was cleared from the line by Diego Gonzalez.

Elche made a sucker punch a minute before half time when Barca failed to field a straight goal kick into the field. Amid the confusion, Pedri prodded the ball back past his own defense and through to Fidel. Fidel took hold of the ball and shot into the far corner.

Barcelona equalized on the hour when Dembélé drove to the line and hung up a cross. Jordi Alba couldn’t catch the ball neatly, but Torres was perfectly positioned to send in.

Elche was exhausting, Barca pushed for a winner and in the 82nd minute they got their chance as Depay squirmed around Barragan, the ball came up and Barragan instinctively raised his arm to meet him. Depay pushed the penalty into the top corner.

Atletico were ahead in Sevilla after 75 seconds when Jan Oblak’s punt downfield clicked on Angel Correa, who took advantage of some lethargic Betis defense to cross over to Felix, the striker got an easy finish.

Betis tied the score in the fifth minute of stoppage time at the end of the first half after Hector Herrera was robbed of the ball under pressure from Youssouf Sabaly and Cristian Tello brilliantly led the loose ball into the corner.

Felix struck again on the hour as Marcos Llorente raced up behind and picked the Portuguese out with a cutback before Thomas Lemar added third with 10 minutes to go, coming in after an electric Antoine Griezmann raced to the right to secure the win to set.

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