Alvaro Morata’s debut ended in disappointment as Atletico Madrid missed a golden chance to cut the gap behind Barcelona by losing 1-0 to Real Betis in La Liga on Sunday.
Morata made his first start for Atletico at Benito Villamarin but it was an unspectacular opener for the on-loan Chelsea striker, and a big opportunity squandered for his team.
Barca’s draw at home to Valencia on Saturday meant their closest rivals could have reduced the deficit to three points at the top.
Instead, Sergio Canales’ penalty for Betis means that by the end of the weekend, the Catalans will be one further ahead than when they began it.
“The match was clear,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “A few chances for both teams, they took advantage of the penalty we gave them and that was enough.”
Real Madrid could yet prove the chief beneficiaries. Real play Alaves later on Sunday, when victory would give them the chance to leapfrog Atletico by winning the city derby next weekend.
Atletico have been the best team in the capital this season and have managed to cling to the coattails of Barca, despite the relentless form of the leaders.
But while Simeone’s side have a better record at home than any team in the division, on away form alone they sit fifth.
Betis, who also beat Barca in November, climb to sixth and will be a danger in the Copa del Rey, where they play Valencia in the semi-finals on Thursday, with a final at their own stadium up for grabs.
– Morata starts –
Morata started up front alongside Antoine Griezmann but, except for the occasional link-up on the counter-attack, there was little to suggest the pair’s chemistry will be instant. Diego Costa is expected back from injury soon. Morata has limited time to stake a claim.
“In the few days that he has been with us, Alvaro has worked very well,” Simeone said. “Hopefully he can find a way to score goals, which is what we need.”
Atletico could have been behind within two minutes had Jan Oblak not made a superb, leaping save to claw out Zouhair Feddal’s header but that was the best chance of a cagey opening half.
Morata was busy, but imprecise. He made more tackles than any other player in the first 45 minutes but his effort was not matched by much edge in front of goal. He curled one finish into the hands of Pau Lopez and missed a header.
Both teams were more ambitious in the second period as Griezmann’s flicked header flashed wide and then he dragged a shot from Angel Correa’s cut-back.
There were penalty appeals at each end but neither side had much of a case. Rodri Hernandez scooped the ball away from Sergio Leon and then Morata went down, Fedal this time on the slide. On both occasions, the defender got just enough of the ball.
Then, in the 63rd minute, Betis did hear David Medie’s whistle blow and this time it was clear. Filipe Luis put his hand up as he waited for a cross and looked away at the crucial moment. Canales’ shot clipped Oblak’s hand but nestled in the corner.
Atletico pushed for an equaliser and Griezmann almost had it, only for his brilliant, bending effort to cannon back off the far post. It was the closest the visitors came.