Thomas Partey's late goal helps Atletico to tight win over Levante
Thomas Partey came off the bench to fire Atletico Madrid to a 1-0 win over struggling Levante and take Diego Simeone's side two points clear at the top of the Primera Division.
The Ghanaian midfielder scored a scrappy winner with nine minutes remaining to ensure his side took advantage of Barcelona's goalless draw at Espanyol, although the reigning champions have a game in hand.
Thomas also proved the difference in Atletico's late win at Rayo Vallecano in their previous game, laying the ball on for Angel Correa to score the first goal in a 2-0 win, again after coming on in the second half.
The Vicente Calderon erupted in joy when the 22-year-old poked the ball home, helped by some weak goalkeeping by Levante's Diego Marino, as it looked as if Atletico were about to blow another opportunity to gain ground on Barcelona, having lost 1-0 to Malaga before the Christmas break while Barca were at the Club World Cup.
Levante headed to the Calderon bottom of the table with manager Rubi, their second of the season, under huge pressure having taken just five points from nine matches since succeeding Lucas Alcaraz.
Simeone gave a recovered Jackson Martinez a first start in over two months at the expense of Fernando Torres and also started Stefan Savic ahead of Jose Gimenez in defence.
The Montenegro international came close to grabbing his first goal for Atletico in the first half when he rose to meet a corner from set-piece specialist Koke, but his header hit the post.
Martinez also fired a warning shot for the hosts in the first half, turning inside the area and aiming for the bottom corner, but Marino got down low to fist it away.
Early in the second half Martinez turned provider to Koke, chesting the ball into the midfielder's path on the edge of the area, and the Spain international's scorching shot rattled the underside of the crossbar.
Atletico hit the woodwork once more, an overhit cross from Juanfran from the right which clipped the bar, and as the minutes ticked away the hosts hosts were getting increasingly desperate.
Simeone took the brave decision of withdrawing Martinez for Thomas, a product of Atletico's academy who spent last season on loan with Almeria. But Atletico had something to worry about at their own end as Ruben Garcia tried to catch Jan Oblak out from outside the area, but the goalkeeper made a comfortable save.
Atletico finally found a way through with 10 minutes to go. Gabi fed Thomas inside the area and the Ghanaian skipped his way past two defenders before firing in a shot that Marino looked to have saved with his left hand, only to send the ball trickling over the goal line with his right.
Atletico were not bothered how it went in, though, and they return to the top of the Primera Division for the first time since clinching the 2014 title at the Camp Nou.