Marcos Llorente dismissed the suggestion of luck being on Atletico Madrid's side in their LaLiga title bid after their close-fought win over Elche.

Llorente scored the only goal of the game in the 23rd minute, moments after Luis Suarez had a goal disallowed by VAR for offside.

However, Llorente seemed set to go from hero to zero for LaLiga leaders Atleti when he conceded a late penalty for handball.

Yet Atleti came away unscathed, Elche captain Fidel hitting the post with his spot-kick. Atleti have now not conceded from the previous three penalties they have faced.

The victory lifted Atleti five points clear in a four-way title tussle, albeit that gap will be closed should Real Madrid beat Osasuna in Saturday's late game.

With Barcelona having lost their game in hand on Thursday, Atleti would be crowned champions should they win all of their four remaining matches – including a huge game against the Blaugrana at Camp Nou next week.

"It was an obligation to win, it was very important for everyone," Llorente told Movistar.

"The team knew how to carry out the game. All the rivals are at the top and Elche are a great team. We take all three points and it gives us great satisfaction."

Asked if luck was on Atleti's side, Llorente replied: "Starting from the fact that I don't believe in luck, in the end, if [the penalty] got to the goal, [Jan] Oblak had guessed the right way. 

"We got the points and it gives us a lot of strength for what remains.

"Winning is always positive, confidence increases, and today is one of those days."

It was a sentiment echoed by Simeone, who told a news conference: "It is time to work. The facts must be demonstrated on the pitch: that the team improves, plays with enthusiasm, is fierce and what I imagined and dreamed of when I arrived at Atletico."

Asked if Atleti must be considered favourites, Simeone said: "We are not in the moment to think; we are in the moment to do."

Simeone has now coached in 360 LaLiga games, surpassing Helenio Herrera as the Argentine to have managed the most matches in the competition.

Elche captain Fidel missed a stoppage-time penalty as Atletico Madrid picked up a narrow 1-0 win to tighten their grip on top spot in LaLiga ahead of next week's huge showdown with Barcelona.

Diego Simeone's side lost 2-1 to Athletic Bilbao last weekend and were fortunate to avoid another slip-up against relegation-threatened Elche in Saturday's contest at Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero.

Marcos Llorente scored what proved to be the all important goal for Atleti with his 12th league strike of the campaign in the 23rd minute after Luis Suarez had one chalked off for a marginal offside.

However, Elche wasted a glorious chance to snatch a share of the spoils in the 91st minute as Fidel fired a penalty against the post, meaning Atletico move ​five points clear of Real Madrid and Barca, who both have a game in hand to play.

Diego Simeone believes LaLiga's engrossing four-way title race is good for Spanish football and insists leaders Atletico Madrid are only focusing on themselves following Barcelona's slip-up.

Barca missed the chance to go top of LaLiga on Thursday as they slipped to a stunning 2-1 home defeat against Granada, with coach Ronald Koeman sent off prior to Jorge Molina's 79th-minute winner.

It means Atletico lead Real Madrid and Barca by two points, with Sevilla just a point further back with five games to play.

Atletico visit Elche on Saturday prior to Madrid's clash with Osasuna. Barca face Valencia at Mestalla on Sunday and Sevilla host Athletic Bilbao on Monday.

But Simeone is solely concentrated on what his side do, rather than the fortunes of others in a title race that is a welcome tonic to the Barca-Madrid duopoly that has long since dominated LaLiga.

"It is novel and does good to Spanish football," Simeone told a pre-match media conference of the four-team battle.

"The possibility that several teams can win is good. We are in a four-way fight in which match by match takes on a more important value.

"With four teams so tight I can only think about the next game. Trust the players who have been having a very good season."

Asked about Barca's defeat, Koeman replied: "I saw the end of the match. A competitive match. But I was only thinking about the only thing that matters to us, which is Elche. A team that has changed and competes very well since [head coach Fran] Escriba's arrival.

"The pressure is always there. If you play second and the rivals have won, you have pressure, but if you play before you also have it. You have to focus on what depends on you and nothing else."

Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane said he aspires to play with the best players as the Frenchman addressed speculation linking Kylian Mbappe to the LaLiga giants.

Mbappe has been tipped to leave Ligue 1 champions PSG for LaLiga holders Madrid, with the France star yet to re-sign in Paris as his contract expires in 2022.

PSG remain in discussions with Mbappe – who celebrated his 100th Ligue 1 goal on Sunday – over a new deal.

Varane was asked about France team-mate Mbappe ahead of Wednesday's World Cup qualifier at home to Ukraine, and he told Europe 1: "He's still young, but he's already progressed enormously and he continues to evolve.

"He's becoming more and more complete and he's still a goalscorer; he's one of the greats.

"I aspire to play with the best players and Kylian is one of the best players in Europe."

Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane has made no secret of his desire to work with countryman Mbappe at the Santiago Bernabeu.

However, Zidane's future in the Spanish capital has been debated amid talk he could leave Madrid at the end of his contract in 2022.

Zidane returned to Madrid in 2019 after exiting a year earlier, having guided Los Blancos to three consecutive Champions League titles and LaLiga glory.

Taking charge of France has long been mooted, with Didier Deschamps' Les Bleus contract due to expire after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

"It's a possibility," Varane said of former international and 1998 World Cup winner Zidane coaching his native France.

"The French national team is a target for every French coach, it's normal that he’s potentially considered but it's not something relevant now.

"Our coach [Deschamps] is doing a very good job and we must focus on our short-term goals: clinching our presence in the World Cup and then the 2021 Euros."

Zinedine Zidane is delighted with the character Real Madrid showed to clinch a late win over Elche, but wishes his side could have scored earlier.

Karim Benzema's sensational half-volley in stoppage time secured a 2-1 comeback win for Madrid, who moved up to second in LaLiga.

It was Benzema's second goal of the game – the Frenchman having previously cancelled out Dani Calvo's header.

Madrid have scored five goals in second-half injury time in LaLiga this season, four of them scored by Benzema.

And though Madrid showing the spirit needed to score late goals is a positive for ZIdane, he is concerned that his team are becoming too reliant on last-gasp strikes.

"I like the character but I would like them to score earlier. I would like quieter games," Zidane told reporters.

"It is a team that has character, we are alive in both competitions and we will continue to fight hard and believe in ourselves.

"It's a comeback. We believe in what we do, it has cost us, we have had two or three chances to score before and we have not done it.

"In the end, it is a fair result. They are two very beautiful goals, very good plays. It is good for us."

Playing at the centre of a back three, Sergio Ramos made his first league appearance in over two months after recovering from injury, though the veteran campaigner looked to be working his way back to sharpness.

Ramos made one clearance and lost possession five times before going off after Elche opened the scoring 61 minutes in.

However, Ramos did have a penalty appeal turned down beforehand, a decision which Zidane felt went against his side, though he refused to criticise the officials.

"I shouldn't get involved there. The referee does his job and we try to do ours, that's it," Zidane said.

"I saw the play, it seems to us that there is something, but the referee has decided something else and that's it."

Real Madrid's LaLiga title hopes are still intact after Karim Benzema inspired a 2-1 comeback win over Elche on Saturday.

Having drawn their last two league fixtures, Madrid had the chance to leapfrog Barcelona into second place and close the gap on Atletico Madrid, temporarily at least, to five points.

But a lacklustre display looked like it would result in a third straight league draw – Benzema having cancelled out Dani Calvo's header.

Madrid's slim chances of catching Atleti were handed a late boost, however, when Benzema thundered in a supreme finish in stoppage time to snatch the points.

 

Sergio Ramos and Eden Hazard have been named in Real Madrid's 20-man squad to face Elche.

Club captain Ramos, who is out of contract at the end of the season, has not played since suffering meniscus damage in January.

Hazard has endured an injury-plagued existence since joining Madrid from Chelsea for €100million before the start of last season, with a problem in his left thigh serving as the Belgium attacker's latest setback.

Asked at a pre-match media conference whether each man was ready to play a part against Elche, Zidane replied: "Yes, of course. And we are very happy. Our idea is that they have minutes."

And both are in the 20-strong party, with conjecture ongoing over whether Ramos will extend his deal in the Spanish capital.

Hazard is under contract until 2024, giving him plenty of time to turn around an underwhelming stint to date.

Zidane has every confidence the 30-year-old will do so.

"I see him 100 per cent physically and emotionally well," said the Frenchman. "He has overcome the injuries and discomfort he may have had.

"I see him well, he will be with us and I hope he can play."

The Madrid boss dismissed concerns that the catalogue of injuries suffered by Hazard could have a similarly debilitating impact as Gareth Bale's woes had over recent seasons.

"Eden has had his discomfort, it's true. He had never had a long injury before coming to Madrid," he added.

"Now here he had a lot of discomfort. But he has a long player and when he gets well, Damn, he is going to have an impressive performance.

"I speak to the fans: when a player is not at 100 per cent it is complicated, but he is going to do very well here "

Zinedine Zidane has refused to offer any guarantee over the future of Sergio Ramos, but he remains convinced Raphael Varane will stay at Real Madrid. 

Club captain Ramos is out of contract at the end of the season and stated on Thursday that there was "nothing new" to report around a possible extension. 

With Madrid said to be keen to sign Ramos to a new deal but only on reduced wages due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Paris Saint-Germain have been linked with the 34-year-old, who has won 22 trophies in 16 years with Madrid including five LaLiga titles and four Champions Leagues. 

Head coach Zidane admitted on Friday he has little knowledge of Ramos' contract situation, although he would be keen for the Spain veteran to stay in the capital. 

Speaking ahead of Saturday's LaLiga clash with Elche, he said of Ramos: "I can't really answer that question because I don't know. 

"I hope that Ramos remains at the club, he's a key player with everything he's done in the past and hopefully he can remain here and play." 

Meanwhile, the future of long-time centre-back partner Varane is also uncertain. The 27-year-old, whose contract runs out at the end of next season, is said to be considering a new challenge and is reportedly a target for Manchester United. 

However, Zidane appears confident his compatriot has no particular desire to move elsewhere and only has positive things to say about life at Madrid. 

"I don't think that's his first option, to play elsewhere," said Zidane. "He always speaks highly of the club. He's very happy here. I can't see him playing anywhere else." 

Madrid face Elche needing a win to put pressure on top two Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. 

The champions are two points behind Barca and eight adrift of leaders Atletico following last weekend's 1-1 derby draw.

Lionel Messi was not among the veteran Barcelona stars Ronald Koeman called on to step up prior to Wednesday's win against Elche, the coach insists.

Barca headed into the match at Camp Nou having endured consecutive disappointing results in their previous two games, losing 4-1 at home to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and then conceding a late equaliser to Cadiz in a 1-1 draw.

While Koeman has come to rely heavily on teenagers Pedri and Francisco Trincao this season, it was the more experienced players he demanded more from in his pre-match news conference on Tuesday.

That would presumably include Messi, the team's 33-year-old captain, but Koeman explained after overseeing a 3-0 victory that he had not been referring to his talisman.

Messi moved up a gear anyway, scoring with two of his three shots, creating a further chance and playing a role in the build-up to Jordi Alba's clinching goal.

The Barca number 10 certainly could not be questioned after increasing his 2021 tally to 13 goals in all competitions, the most of any player in Europe's 'top five' leagues.

"When I talk about veterans, I don't mean him," Koeman said. "Leo continues to score many goals.

"Others have to make a difference, not Messi. He continues to score, as he has shown today."

Messi was not immediately joined in lifting Barca's level as Trincao attempted the hosts' only two shots in the first half, their lowest tally in the opening 45 minutes of a home game this season.

Koeman had no issue then with Messi making his frustration clear during a tetchy first period.

"Everyone has seen that we lacked intensity and rhythm of the ball, especially," the coach explained. "It is good that Messi, as captain, asks for intensity."

Seven attempts followed after the interval, with all three of those on target hitting the net, while Koeman ended an eight-match run without a clean sheet.

"It was good," Koeman said. "The lack of rhythm was not due to a lack of attitude.

"Sometimes the opposition make things not go the way you want. We are human. The team has shown personality and desire."

Still third but now within five points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, Koeman was hopeful the mood in the Blaugrana camp would improve with the much-needed victory.

"Surely, having won today, tomorrow will be different," he said. "It is normal [to be upset] if you drop two points against Cadiz when it was time to cut back those at the top.

"You have to close this bad feeling with good games and good results."

Barcelona narrowed the gap to LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to five points as Lionel Messi's second-half double helped them to a 3-0 win over Elche.

Ronald Koeman's men had missed a chance to take advantage of Atletico's slip-up against Levante at the weekend when they were held at home by struggling Cadiz.

They were not at their best on Wednesday in a clash with another relegation-threatened side in Elche, but Messi's delightful double and a stylish Jordi Alba effort secured a crucial win.

Barca remain third in the table having played a game more than Atletico, whose lead over second-placed Real Madrid is just three points.

Francisco Trincao forced Edgar Badia into a close-range save in the second minute and, after Lucas Boye had spurned a gilt-edged chance at the other end, the Portugal international was denied a stunning goal by the Elche goalkeeper.

Trincao jinked past two Elche defenders after latching on to a pass from Messi, only to see Badia produce a fine diving save with his left hand.

Badia was required again to keep out Frenkie de Jong's header from a floated Messi free-kick, the frustration clear among Koeman and his players as parity was preserved.

That parity lasted just three minutes into the second half, Messi's shot squirming into the net despite Badia getting a hand to it following a superb flicked return pass from Martin Braithwaite.

Messi's second was similarly aesthetically pleasing, De Jong finding him at the end of the slaloming run before the Argentine delicately dinked the ball over Badia.

And the game was put beyond any doubt in the 73rd minute when Braithwaite nodded Messi's excellent cross-field ball into the path of Alba to dispatch with an acrobatic effort.

The scoreline could have been made more emphatic late on, but substitute Antoine Griezmann cracked the crossbar from Sergino Dest's low cross.

Ronald Koeman has not given up on Barcelona winning LaLiga as they face a pivotal run of fixtures that could define their season, starting with Elche at home on Wednesday. 

Barca sit fourth in the table after only managing a draw at home to Cadiz at the weekend, a surprise result that ended a streak of seven successive league wins. 

However, with leaders Atletico Madrid losing at home to Levante, meaning they have managed just one victory in their previous four outings, Koeman retains hope his team can make up ground and get involved in a title race. 

Atleti have a three-point cushion over second-placed Real Madrid, who have played a game more than their neighbours, while Barcelona are eight points adrift.  

In between the two Clasico rivals are Sevilla, to whom Koeman's side travel to play this weekend in league action. They then host the same opponents next Tuesday in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final, Barca needing to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the previous meeting if they are to progress. 

"I still believe that we can fight for the championship," Koeman told the media ahead of the visit of Elche to Camp Nou. "Results are showing that each team can come down.  

"It will depend on the two games that come, which are very important to fight for the title.  

"Then, in the cup, we have to come back. In the two competitions, we can do things. This week, we have three games that are important.

"It is difficult because we have to overcome a home game against Sevilla without an audience, with an audience it would be easier." 

Barca had 20 attempts and 81 per cent of possession against Cadiz but were punished for their wastefulness when Clement Lenglet was ruled to have fouled Ruben Sobrino in the penalty area, allowing Alex Fernandez to convert for an 89th-minute equaliser for the visitors with their only shot on target.

While they have scored 50 goals in LaLiga this campaign – the most by any team in the competition – Koeman wants to see his players become more ruthless in attack. 

"The problem is not that we do not create. It would be worse if we did not create opportunities," the Dutchman said when reflecting on Sunday's performance.

"We must ask for more effectiveness from the players at the top. We create opportunities and we did not score to make it 2-0.  

"These are important moments and, this season, we lack effectiveness. The percentage of goals is low for a team like Barcelona."

Koeman confirmed that Ronald Araujo is not yet ready to return from injury, though the defender is "improving" and could feature in either of the upcoming games against Sevilla.

Ronald Koeman praised Frenkie de Jong for improving the attacking aspect of his game after chipping in with another goal and an assist in Barcelona's 2-0 win over Elche.

The Netherlands international profited from a Diego Gonzalez error to give Barca a 39th-minute lead and crossed for substitute Riqui Puig to score a late second in Sunday's LaLiga clash.

De Jong now has three goals and two assists in his last six games in all competitions, while his five LaLiga goals in 18 months at Camp Nou is one more than he managed in five seasons in the Eredivisie.

He also contested more duels (11) than any other Barca player at Estadio Martinez Valero and no visiting player intercepted the ball more often (twice).

But it is the attacking side of De Jong's game that most pleased head coach Koeman, who wants his midfielders to take the goalscoring burden off the forward line.

"The three forwards aren't enough; we need the midfielders to score too," Koeman said. "It's good that he's scoring and assisting.

"He's always improving. We want the midfielders to get into the box and get up there."

Fellow midfielder Puig followed that advice by getting on the end of De Jong's cross and heading past Edgar Badia from his seventh touch after being introduced from the bench.

It was the academy graduate's first goal at senior level but he admitted to being disappointed by his lack of playing time this term, having made only one start in all competitions.

"I'm having quite a difficult season because I'm not used to playing so little," Puig told Movistar.

"But I'm getting stronger mentally. I'm happy with the team's hard work and how my team-mates are helping me."

Victory for Barcelona was their fourth in a row in the league, three of those without conceding, as they moved up to third place.

The Catalan giants have not conceded in any of their last nine LaLiga games against Elche, meanwhile, which is their best such run against a single opponent in the competition.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen produced a big save to deny Emiliano Rigoni with Barca 1-0 up and Koeman was grateful for his compatriot's shot-stopping ability.

"They didn't have many chances - they only had one and it came from a big mistake from our defence," Koeman said. "But Ter Stegen was very good in the one-on-one.

"Luckily we have a good goalkeeper, because they could've equalised at that point.

"Defensively, apart from that mistake, we did well. The best thing about today was our pressing and our performance without the ball. We deserved to win.

"I'm very happy with how we won. We've had lots of matches in the last few days and we've kept focus.

"We were better than our opponents. We were patient. We won possession. It was difficult to score because they had lots of men behind the ball. But we pressed well."

Barcelona return to action on Wednesday with a trip to Rayo Vallecano in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey.

Frenkie de Jong is unsure of Barcelona's title credentials despite their improving LaLiga form.

De Jong scored the opener and created a late second for substitute Riqui Puig during Sunday's 2-0 win at Elche.

That made it four wins out of four for Barca in Spain's top flight since the turn of the year, although they will be 10 points behind Atletico Madrid having played a game more if the leaders are able to beat Valencia in Sunday's late kick-off.

"I'm not sure," he told LaLiga TV when asked whether Ronald Koeman's side are back in the title race.

"We have to win our games and we'll see where we end up towards the end of the season."

Nevertheless, the Netherlands midfielder has no doubt Barca are an improved side after a tough start to life under his former national team boss Koeman.

"Since the new year we're a lot better and we've played most of the games away from home and won all of them in LaLiga. We're in a better moment," De Jong said.

"I think [beating Elche] will do us good, we've worked hard, especially now in the new year. We're growing and improving as a team and hopefully we can keep improving."

De Jong's tally of five goals across his season-and-a-half with Barca has already bettered his total of Eredivisie strikes for Ajax (four) across five campaigns, and the 23-year-old also feels that the imperative to improve applies to him personally, even after a man-of-the-match display.

"Yes, I do think I can play better but it’s not only about goals and assists," he added. "Of course I'm happy but there's more to come."

Frenkie de Jong played a prominent role as Barcelona beat LaLiga strugglers Elche 2-0 to stay in touch with the leading pack.

Lionel Messi completed his two-match suspension for a red card during the Supercopa de Espana defeat to Athletic Bilbao and Barca struggled to create clear chances in his absence against well-organised opponents.

But an error from Diego Gonzalez allowed De Jong to take advantage in the 39th-minute – the Netherlands international unlikely to score an easier one than his fifth LaLiga goal.

A minute from time, De Jong then turned provider as he crossed for Riqui Puig to head home, ensuring Barca are three points behind Real Madrid, although they will be 10 points shy of Atletico Madrid again if the leaders are able to beat Valencia later on Sunday.

Ronald Koeman declared he must be the wrong coach for Barcelona if he cannot be allowed to criticise the team for falling short of required standards.

The Dutchman is approaching six months in charge of the Camp Nou giants and he expressed frustration on Thursday when his team needed extra time to see off third-tier minnows Cornella in the Copa del Rey.

Miralem Pjanic and Ousmane Dembele missed penalties, and that factor particularly stuck in the craw for Koeman, a spot-kick expert in his playing days.

Koeman said his players needed to "have more responsibility", adding: "You can't miss two penalties as Barcelona players."

Those forthright comments have come in for plenty of scrutiny in Spain, and Koeman was asked about their impact on his players when he spoke on Saturday, ahead of a LaLiga trip to face Elche for which Lionel Messi is suspended.

"I am not going to lie. I say what I see," said the former Everton, Netherlands and Ajax boss.

"If you are a Barca player, you have to be demanding. I criticise them with respect. I'm not going for anyone, I want to help them, but if we play against Cornella with all due respect and we are not able to win in 90 minutes, I have to say what I see.

"If not, bring in another coach."

Koeman pointed to Barcelona's dismal overall penalty record this season, including the Supercopa semi-final shoot-out against Real Sociedad.

He said: "Every player can miss a penalty but to miss seven out of 12 is too much.

"The number one to take penalties is Leo [Messi] but if he's not there on the pitch to take it we must have other players to have the responsibility to score from the penalty spot.

"Yesterday and today we trained that to improve."

Sunday's clash with Elche will be a seventh successive game away from Camp Nou for Barcelona, including their Supercopa games last week.

Barcelona have struck on strong form in LaLiga and had moved up to third place heading into the weekend.

However, leaders Atletico Madrid stood 10 points ahead of them, with their rise driven to a large part by the goals of Luis Suarez, the striker Barcelona allowed to leave in the close season.

Suarez, third on Barcelona's all-time scorers list, has 11 goals in 14 league games for his new club.

Asked if Barcelona are missing Suarez, Koeman said: "I don't like answering that. You only ask me when he scores. He is a great player, I wish him the best of luck, but the decision has been made."

Koeman would love to bring new players to Barcelona, but the club's finances have been heavily hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Any possibility of a new club president launching his tenure with marquee recruits was scotched when elections, due to take place this Sunday, were delayed.

"My position is known: we lack people, but the economic situation of the club is an influence," Koeman said. "I think we all think the same. If no one arrives, I accept it and we continue the same, but if we want more we must sign."

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