Fernando Torres scored his fourth goal as many La Liga games to give Atletico Madrid a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao that keeps the pressure on Barcelona at the top of the table.
The experienced striker netted a header late in the first half of a game of few chances to ensure Atletico remained level on points with the league leaders, who won 8-0 at Deportivo La Coruna.
The goal was deftly teed up by French forward Antoine Griezmann, and both he and Torres pulled the strings for Atletico as they have done so often during the team’s strong run of late-season form.
The result gave Atletico their eighth win in nine La Liga matches, and Diego Simeone’s side have left Barcelona with no more room for errors in the title run-in.
Without injured striker Aritz Aduriz, Athletic lacked an attacking focal point and the defeat puts a dent in the club’s hopes of achieving qualification for next season’s Champions League.
With so much at stake and neither side willing to take risks, Iker Muniain’s speculative 25-yard drive was saved easily by Jan Oblak in the only goalmouth action of the early stages.
Atletico suffered a blow when influential Uruguayan defender Diego Godin limped off with an apparent hamstring injury after just 11 minutes, and Benat almost made matters worse for the title chasers when he sent a 20-yard free-kick sailing over the crossbar.
Oscar de Marcos denied Thomas Partey a chance at the other end with a vital interception, heading Augusto Fernandez’s cross out of the Ghanaian’s path as Atletico offered their first threat on goal.
Their very next chance ended up in the back of the net, when Griezmann’s superb chipped cross found the head of Torres and the striker placed a precise downward header into the bottom corner beyond Gorka Iraizoz.
Partey then rattled a shot off the post with Iraizoz down injured, prompting tempers to flare at the end of a first half that Atletico deservedly edged.
Stefan Savic went close with a header from Koke’s corner early in the second half, before Benat stung the palms of Oblak with a swerving drive from just outside the box.
Benat turned provider with a long ball into the box for Raul Garcia as the home side applied some pressure, but the midfielder couldn’t get enough on his header to test Oblak.
Athletic sent on Inaki Williams and Ander Iturraspe in an attempt to salvage a point from the game, but it was Griezmann who went closest to scoring when he broke clean through on goal, but Eneko Boveda nipped in to dispossess him and deny him a 21st goal of the season.
Athletic continued to probe for a way through the visitors’ defence in the closing stages, but Godin’s replacement Lucas Hernandez made an important clearance to stop De Marcos’ dangerous cross from reaching Raul Garcia and all three points went towards Atletico’s push for the title.