Atletico stay on course for title

Atletico stay on course for title

Atletico Madrid stayed firmly on course for a surprise La Liga title triumph when a Miranda header and Diego Costa's late penalty secured an unconvincing 2-0 win for the leaders at home to Elche on Friday.

David Villa had a penalty saved shortly after half-time at a raucous Calderon stadium, packed with fans enjoying their team's best season in nearly 20 years, and nerves were jangling when centre back Miranda rose at the back post to nod a Jose Sosa corner powerfully into the net 18 minutes from time.

Costa was felled by Elche defender Cristian Sapunaru, who earned a second yellow card and was sent off, in the 90th minute and the Brazil-born forward stroked the ball into the net for his 27th La Liga goal of the campaign, one fewer than leading marksman Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid.

The victory stretched Atletico's lead over second-placed Real, whose game at Real Valladolid has been moved to May 7, to six points.

Champions Barcelona, who host fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, are a further point behind in third.

Under coach Diego Simeone, Atletico are mounting a genuine challenge for a first La Liga title since 1996 when a team featuring the former Argentina captain won the domestic league and Cup double.

If they win their next three matches, they will be assured of the title by the time they run out at Barca's Nou Camp stadium for the final game of the campaign. Before the trip to the Catalan capital, they face tough games at Valencia and Levante and a home match against Malaga.

"It was a very important win and we have to carry on like this," Miranda told Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.

"There are four more finals and we have to win," added the Brazilian.

"The team knows how to suffer when we have to suffer and now we have to rest and think about the next game."

Atletico have also blazed a trail in Europe this season, dispatching former winners AC Milan and Barca on the way to a semifinal against Chelsea, with the first leg at the Calderon on Tuesday.

Puyol out

Captain Carles Puyol has joined a long list of Barcelona absentees after feeling pain in his knee during training on Saturday, the champions said ahead of Sunday's La Liga game at home to Athletic Bilbao.

Centre back Puyol, who turned 36 this month, has barely played this season due to a string of injuries and coach Gerardo Martino is also without regulars including forward Neymar, goalkeeper Victor Valdes, centre back Gerard Pique and left back Jordi Alba for the match against fourth-placed Bilbao at the Nou Camp.

Midfielder Sergio Busquets is suspended but Marc Bartra, another centre back, has shrugged off a thigh problem and is in the squad, Barca said on their website (www.fcbarcelona.es).

"Our only option is to get the maximum points from the five games we have left," Martino told a news conference on Saturday.

"It is hard to keep our spirits up because we are not used to things like this," added the Argentine who is in his first season in charge.

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