La Liga: Atlético, Sevilla keep up challenge for top-four spot
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Atletico Madrid and Sevilla eased to comfortable wins to stay in the hunt for a top-four finish in the Spanish league on Saturday.
Atletico won 2-0 at Cordoba after Antoine Griezmann and Saul Niguez scored in the first half to give the league's bottom side its 10th straight defeat. The defending champions rose into provisional third place, two points ahead of Valencia.
"My team went into the match with a clear idea about what it needed to do and it was able to resolve the match in 20 minutes," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said.
Fifth-place Sevilla likewise got first-half goals from Aleix Vidal and Carlos Bacca to brush aside visitor Athletic Bilbao 2-0, and pull within two points of Valencia in the fight for one of the four Champions League berths.
Bilbao remained eighth after its first loss in six rounds saw midfielder Iker Muniain carried off when he injured his left leg shortly before halftime. The club said Muniain had a knee "sprain," and would undergo more tests.
Elsewhere, Levante striker David Barral scored a hat trick to fuel its 4-1 rout at 10-man Almeria, leaving the struggling hosts in the relegation zone.
Real Sociedad substitute Ruben Pardo also struck from long range in the 83rd minute to cancel out Jose "Recio" Garcia's goal and earn a 1-1 draw at Malaga as both sides stayed in the middle of the table.
Griezmann put Atletico in charge in the fifth when the forward won possession from Bruno Zuculini inside Cordoba's half. He quickly wrong-footed the last defender before blasting in a low, left-footed strike from outside the area for his 15th league goal of the campaign.
Niguez cemented Atletico's dominance in the 39th by scoring from a well-executed set-piece move. The midfielder glided into the area to nod home a throw-in by Jesus Gamez, flicked on by Jose Gimenez.
"The best part of the match was that my team understood it had to start strong because it knew they could be imprecise with the ball," Simeone said. "We (then) found a way to score with a set-piece, and that made it easier to manage the match."
Cordoba briefly flirted with a goal in the second half as Bebe hit the crossbar eight minutes before Jose Crespo forced Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak to make an athletic save in the 85th.
Atletico's victory kept alive its slim hopes of defending its title, as it pulled within six points of leader Barcelona before the pacesetter visited Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Sevilla caused Bilbao trouble from the start by placing long balls behind its defensive line as it romped to an early advantage at Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.
"We were able to impose our style of play," Sevilla coach Unai Emery said. "We needed to play long to counter their pressure high up the pitch. That's how we did our damage."
Vidal headed a long pass over onrushing goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz before slotting the ball into the open net for the third-minute lead.
Bacca then finished off a quick buildup from the right flank in the 21st for his 17th goal of the season, tying him with Barcelona's Neymar as the league's third-highest scorers.
In Almeria, Barral scored twice from two passes by Andreas Ivanschitz and Victor Casadesus added another goal before Almeria lost Sebastian Dubarbier to his second booking in the 58th.
Tomer Hemed pulled one back for Almeria from the penalty spot before Casadesus set up Barral's third goal to cap Levante's big win as it moved three points from the drop.
Also on Sunday, second-place Real Madrid hosts Granada, Valencia welcomes Villarreal, and Deportivo La Coruna is at Getafe.