First-half goals from Nahuel Molina and Mario Hermoso earned Atletico Madrid a 2-1 win at Rayo Vallecano on Sunday to secure their fifth successive win and move within two points of second-placed Real Madrid in LaLiga.
A superb 12-match unbeaten league run has powered Atletico to a 57-point tally to close the gap on its city rival, which virtually kissed its title chances goodbye after losing to Villarreal on Saturday.
Barcelona, which plays Girona on Monday, lead the standings on 71 points.
“We think back to two years ago with the team that won the league. We have changed little, we have had more continuity,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone told DAZN.
“With injuries in defence, we had more losses in the first half of the season. When we had that break from the World Cup, we got back on track. The team is playing well and when they are committed, you can see good things.”
Molina opened the scoring in the 22nd minute after a fast breakaway where Alvaro Morata set up the World Cup-winning Argentina right back for his first goal since joining the club in the close season from Italian side Udinese.
“(Atletico) was a very important change for me. At first it was difficult for me to get into the team’s dynamic and I didn’t feel at my best,” Molina said.
“Winning a World Cup gives you a boost. But the important thing is the work during the week, getting to know my team mates, what the coach asks of me and carrying it out.”
Hermoso doubled the lead a couple of minutes later with a header from a corner, capitalising on a poor clearance by Rayo goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski.
“We wanted to get back to where we were two years ago when we were champions and win again,” Hermoso said.
“It’s a pretty good team, we’re great team mates. Now we want to keep winning. It’s always nice to contribute with a goal.”
The host was a man down after defender Florian Lejeune was sent off early in the second half, but left back Fran Garcia restored some hope by pulling one back in the 85th minute with a brilliant long-range low shot.
Atletico hosts relegation-threatened Almeria next Saturday while Rayo, ninth on 37 points, takes on Osasuna on Friday.