Nico Gaitan’s first-half goal proved decisive as Atletico Madrid stuttered to an unimpressive 1-0 LaLiga win at home to a Real Betis side who pushed their hosts all the way on Saturday.
Diego Simeone’s men looked a far sterner defensive unit than they did in Tuesday’s woeful 3-2 Copa del Rey second-leg defeat to Las Palmas, but going forward looked devoid of craft for long periods.
Initially they looked bright in attack and Gaitan, who was given just his fourth league start of the season after impressing on Tuesday, repaid Simeone’s faith with the opener.
There was little else for Atletico supporters to get excited about, though, as Betis produced a strong performance of their own with home goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya impressing.
The win enabled Atletico to move within two points of third-placed Sevilla, who host Real Madrid on Sunday.
Atletico began with real intent and took charge early on, breaking the deadlock after just eight minutes.
The visitors were caught out in midfield and Atletico broke quickly, with Sime Vrsaljko charging up the right flank and seeing his low cross deflected into the path of Gaitan, who prodded past Antonio Adan from close range.
— Atlético de Madrid (@Atleti) January 14, 2017
Antoine Griezmann should have added a second shortly afterwards but smashed a right-footed effort over the bar after the ball dropped kindly for him in the centre of the area.
The hosts’ dominance soon waned and Betis put together some tidy passing moves as they looked to carve through Atletico’s stubborn defence.
Betis crafted their first chance in the 34th minute, with Moya forced to dive to his right to thwart Ruben Castro after Stefan Savic’s wayward pass had put Atletico in trouble.
And Moya had to be alert again just before the break, keeping Jonas Martin’s 12-yard effort out after an intricate move towards the right-hand side of the box.
Atletico looked to have renewed focus at the start of the second half and Fernando Torres – who was anonymous before the break – was presented with an early chance, but he could not squeeze his effort past Adan from a tight angle.
The home side were more compact in midfield and afforded the lively Dani Ceballos less space than they did in the first half.
Atletico did go close to a second, as Yannick Carrasco darted in from the left and blasted at Adan from 16 yards shortly after his 62nd-minute introduction for Gaitan.
Carrasco’s entrance certainly made a difference for the home side and they began to attack with more intensity in the final 10 minutes as they attempted to defend from the front.
And Simeone’s tactics worked, as Atletico saw things out to claim a third successive league win.