Thomas Partey the unlikely hero as Atletico Madrid top Levante, La Liga
It was not pretty, but that does not matter. Atletico Madrid managed to capitalise on Barcelona's slip to move two points clear at the top of the La Liga table with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over a resilient Levante side on Saturday at the Vicente Calderon.
Winning while not playing well is a sign of a champion, and that is exactly what Atleti did. Although manager Diego Simeone was not overly happy with his side's performance in the postmatch news conference, he will be delighted that they were once again able to eke out a victory when it seemed they were destined for a drab, goalless draw.
Once again, it was the Argentine's decisions from the sideline that came up trumps, and for the second game running, a substitute proved the difference between the sides. This time, it was midfielder Thomas Partey who dropped his shoulder and turned on the afterburners to beat at least four defenders and send Los Colchoneros top, albeit having played a game more than the Catalans.
For now, though, Atletico can rest easy, assured of their place at the top of the pile. The past two games have shown this side are well and truly in the La Liga title race.
Player ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Jan Oblak, 6 -- It was another clean sheet for the Slovenian stopper, who is quietly becoming one of Europe's best goalkeepers. His numbers don't lie.
DF Juanfran, 7 -- Atleti's Mr. Consistency was exactly that. He was solid at the back, with one terrific, last-ditch block in particular catching the eye, and he was often the side's out ball going forward.
DF Stefan Savic, 6 -- Given a rare start ahead of Jose Maria Gimenez, the man from Montenegro was sure, if unspectacular. He dealt with what he had to and made a couple useful blocks as Levante threatened to cause an upset.
DF Diego Godin, 7 -- The Uruguayan never gives an inch, and he was dominant in the air against the threat of the dangerous Nabil Ghilas. He went close on a couple occasions at the other end and will perhaps be disappointed to not have bagged himself a goal.
DF Filipe Luis, 6 -- He was not quite at the races and was caught out of position a couple times. Nevertheless, he was always a willing recipient down the left-hand side and attacked with gusto.
MF Koke, 6 -- He squandered a good chance in the first half; however, he showed exceptional technique as he half-volleyed against the underside of the crossbar 10 minutes after the break. His set-piece delivery was hit-and-miss, but when it was good, it was very good, and it deserved to be buried.
MF Saul Niguez, 7 -- With the imminent arrivals of Augusto Fernandez and Matias Kranevitter, the 21-year-old stood up to be counted by playing a disciplined role in front of the back four and helping break up play and distribute. He was an underrated threat from set pieces, and half the Calderon thought he had scored when his glancing header hit the side netting in the first minute.
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MF Gabi, 6 -- Having let the side down before Christmas with a daft red card, the skipper was back and showing much more discipline by covering every blade of grass as his side ground down their tricky visitors over the 90 minutes. He played a neat one-two with Partey for the all-important goal.
FW Angel Correa, 6 -- He was rewarded for his supersub display against Rayo Vallecano with a start, and he was very unlucky to not win a penalty early on when, he was brought down inside the box. He showed a few neat touches but visibly tired after the break and was hooked on the hour for Luciano Vietto.
FW Antoine Griezmann, 5 -- It was a night to forget for Los Rojiblancos' talisman. It started with an awful decision to try to set up Jackson Martinez on a two-on-one, and then he managed to fall over the ball a number of times in the second half. Given that he is so often the saviour, he is allowed to have these kind of nights, and fortunately for the side, someone else stepped up.
FW Jackson Martinez, 6 -- Another who was rewarded for a decent cameo against Rayo, the Colombian forced a smart stop low down from Diego Marino early, while he also grazed the post with a header shortly after the restart. He then neatly chested into Koke's path as the midfielder cracked the bar minutes later. He was much more impressive than Fernando Torres has been of late -- though that's not saying much -- and must surely now be given an extended run of games to find some goal-scoring form.
Luciano Vietto, 6 -- He went close with an impish, midair back-heel that flew narrowly wide late on.
Yannick Carrasco, 6 -- Thrown on in a bold move by Simeone, with Atleti searching for a goal, the Belgian was both brilliant and infuriating in equal measure. For every time he beat a man, his final ball was lacking; however, there can be no doubt his pace offers a whole different dimension to the attack.
Thomas Partey, NR -- He showed sublime skill, technique and turn of pace to come off the bench and be the most unlikely of heroes for his side. He got a slice of luck with the finish, but the buildup play deserved it. He almost set Vietto up for a second with a strong run and cross. After two match-changing cameos in succession, he will almost certainly start in the Copa del Rey against Rayo in midweek.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.