Atletico Madrid were given a huge let-off on Saturday as Elche missed a 91st-minute penalty, allowing the La Liga leaders to escape with a 1-0 win and go five points clear at the top of the table.
Elche’s Fidel Chaves struck the post with his injury-time spot-kick in what could prove a pivotal moment in Spain’s thrilling title race, with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla all still in the hunt to be crowned champions.
Marcos Llorente gave Atleti the lead at the Estadio Martinez Valero but they failed to make the result secure and Elche twice could have equalised in the final minutes.
First, Antonio Barragan volleyed over from close range and then Llorente’s handball gave Fidel a golden opportunity from the spot but he too squandered the chance.
“We’re entering a defining period and each victory is a very important step,” said Diego Simeone.
“I don’t believe in luck,” Llorente said. “If it didn’t hit the post I think Oblak would have got to the shot. We have the points and that gives us a lot of strength going forward.”
Simeone leapt into the air when the ball came back off the post, his side pulling further clear and putting pressure on the others, with Real Madrid at home to Osasuna later on Saturday before Barcelona travel to Valencia on Sunday.
Sevilla, who are now six points behind, play their game in hand on Monday against Athletic Bilbao.
After a frantic week that saw Real Madrid draw at home to Real Betis, Atletico lose against Athletic and Barcelona defeated by Granada, any victory, even one as marginal as this, will be welcome for Atleti.
They are now guaranteed to be ahead of Barca when they kick off at Camp Nou next Saturday, the only question now how significant their advantage will be.
Real Madrid also face Sevilla at Valdebebas a day later in a crunch weekend at the top but the resistance of 18th-placed Elche against La Liga’s frontrunners suggests the race may well go to the final day.
VAR denies Atletico
Simeone’s side were denied three times in the first half, Luis Suarez missing a golden chance before they had a goal and a penalty ruled out by VAR.
Suarez’s chance came early, the Uruguayan stepping over Mario Hermoso’s pass and then latching onto Angel Correa’s backheel only to fire wide from eight yards.
When he did score shortly after, Suarez saw the goal chalked off, VAR showing he was just offside when slotting home Llorente’s pass across.
Finally, Atletico broke through, with Yannick Carrasco weaving through down the left before picking out the arriving Llorente, whose shot deflected off Josema Sanchez on its way in.
Atletico thought they had a penalty on the stroke of half-time for a handball by Diego Gonzalez but that was also scrubbed off by referee Melero Lopez.
The pulse of the game slowed in the second half, although Elche wanted a penalty of their own when Geoffrey Kondogbia nudged Pere Milla in the back.
Joao Felix, on as a substitute, might have grabbed a second for Atletico but hesitated in the box and instead Saul Niguez’s shot was blocked.
One was never enough to feel comfortable and Barragan should have equalised with five minutes left when the ball was headed back to him six yards out but somehow he volleyed over.
There was still more drama to come as Victor Rodriguez’s cross struck the hand of the leaping Llorente in the box and Fidel stepped up to snatch a draw. Instead, he found the outside of the post.