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La Liga: Atletico beaten at Bilbao in new title bid blow.

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La Liga leader Atletico Madrid’s title bid was derailed again as it was beaten 2-1 at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday by a late goal from Inigo Martinez, offering Barcelona the chance to go top of the table next week.

Martinez’s bullet header from a corner in the 86th minute delivered a knockout blow to Atletico, who had pulled level with a Stefan Savic header in 77th to cancel out Alex Berenguer’s ninth-minute opener.

Atletico leads the table on 73 points but third-placed Barca, on 71 after beating Villarreal 2-1 earlier on Sunday, can go top if it defeats Granada on Thursday.

Atletico’s defeat adds extra intrigue to a thrilling four-way title race, with three points separating Madrid and fourth-placed Sevilla, who beat Granda 2-1, with five games left.

Champion Real Madrid is second on 71 after being held to a 0-0 draw at home to Real Betis on Saturday.

After a poor run of results let Real, Barca and Sevilla back into a title race, which had looked like Atletico’s to lose, Diego Simeone’s side secured back-to-back wins over struggling Eibar and Huesca.

The side faced an Athletic side without a win in any competition since March 7 and lost two Copa del Rey finals this month, being hammered 4-0 by Barcelona in last week’s showpiece.

But Athletic looked closer to the energetic and intelligent side seen in its first few weeks under coach Marcelino.

Berenguer put the team in front with a diving header from close range, reacting quickly after Ander Capa’s cross took a huge deflection off Atletico defender Felipe.

It missed several chances to increase its lead before halftime against a passive and disjointed Atletico.

Simeone sprung an attacking triple substitution after the break-in search of an equalizer, throwing on top scorer Luis Suarez, record signing Joao Felix, and winger Thomas Lemar.

The changes gave Atleti more urgency and allowed the side to dominate most of the second half but it still lacked a cutting edge and struggled to contain Athletic’s counters.

The host should have doubled its advantage when Jon Morcillo burst up the left flank and found striker Oihan Sancet, who blazed his shot over the bar.

Atletico got a lifeline when Athletic keeper Unai Simon misjudged Yannick Carrasco’s corner and Savic rose to head home, but it could not build on the momentum and Martinez had the final say.

-Simeone harps on mental factor-

Atletico coach Diego Simeone said the team with the most mental strength will prevail in La Liga’s title race.

“People ask me what the most important factor will be and it’s obvious to me that it will be the mental factor,” Simeone said.

“We did not play the way we wanted to in the first half, it was totally different in the second, and the team that manages that emotional balance the best will have the best chance of winning the title,” he added.

Simeone did not dwell on how his side had thrown away the advantage and emphasized that it would claim the league title if it wins the remaining five games.

“Real and Barca are used to winning the title. We had a big lead this year but we knew Real and Barca were not going to surrender. Now Sevilla are playing very well and we have a very exciting situation,” said Simeone.

“We still depend on ourselves and with five games to go that’s crucial. It will all come down to how mentally strong we are and how determined we are in those five games.”


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