Morata off the mark as Atletico sail past Villarreal

MADRID (AFP) – Alvaro Morata poked fun at Video Assistant Referee (VAR) after scoring his first goal for Atletico Madrid on Sunday night as Barcelona’s closest challengers kept up the chase with a 2-0 win over Villarreal.

Since joining Atletico on loan from Chelsea last month, Morata has twice had goals ruled out by VAR so when this one finally stood at the Wanda Metropolitano, he celebrated by imitating a referee putting a finger to his ear.

“At last it came, and with a victory too, so I’m going home happy today,” Morata said. “Until I saw all the officials in the stadium had given the goal, I didn’t want to celebrate too much.”

Saul Niguez added a late second for Atletico, whose victory means they reduce the gap behind Barca to seven points at the top of La Liga.

Morata’s first league goal in almost four months was a deserved reward for another lively performance, which followed up his excellent display off the bench in the midweek win over Juventus.

Atletico Madrid forward Alvaro Morata celebrates with teammates. – AFP

After having one headed goal ruled out, Morata teed up Jose Gimenez’s opener against Juve and his contribution was enough to earn him a start ahead of Diego Costa, who replaced his fellow Spaniard in the second half.

The pair’s jostle for the position as partner-in-chief to Antoine Griezmann looks set to give Diego Simeone a headache in the coming weeks but Atleti’s coach will be relieved that momentum has been sustained after such a memorable night in the Champions League.

“There was an emotional weight after Wednesday,” Simeone said. “They had an early chance but we found our rhythm and Morata got the goal. That makes us very happy.”

Atletico’s deficit behind Barcelona may yet prove impossible to make up but they still have to play the Catalans at the Camp Nou in April and the challenge in the meantime will be at least to stay in touch.

At the other end, relegation for Villarreal remains a distinct possibility. They sit 18th, two points behind Celta Vigo.

Most of Atletico’s victories this season have owed some debt to their goalkeeper Jan Oblak and so it proved again as he prevented Karl Toko Ekambi giving Villarreal an early lead, saving from close range with his legs.

Atletico controlled the game, with their opponents seemingly determined to sit back and frustrate. Morata had a spring in his step and did well to execute a difficult volley from Saul’s cross, only for Sergio Asenjo to push it wide.

His opener took a similar route, also down the left, as this time Filipe Luis dug out the cross and after adjusting his feet, Morata caught his shot perfectly off the bounce. The ball crept inside the post.

Morata departed to a standing ovation just before the hour, replaced by Costa, who could have made it two but took too long to finish after a dash in behind.

Villarreal found some momentum in the last 15 minutes as Mario Gaspar and Gerard Moreno both had shots blocked but Saul dashed any hopes of a comeback.

It was Costa’s ball over the top that did the damage as Saul won the race with Asenjo, lifting the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net.