MADRID — Atlético Madrid hasn't flinched in its quest to win the Spanish league title for the first time since 2014.
Coming from behind for a second straight time, Atlético defeated Valencia 3-1 on Sunday to strengthen its hold on the league lead entering the second half of the season.
Barcelona earlier picked up its second win in a row without the suspended Lionel Messi, defeating Elche 2-0 to regain third place.
João Félix, Luis Suárez and Ángel Correa scored to give Atlético its seventh straight league win and a seven-point gap to second-place Real Madrid with a game in hand. Diego Simeone's team is 10 points ahead of Barcelona.
Atlético had also needed to rally to win its previous league match, against Eibar.
“We started behind again but this team always fights until the end and thankfully we ended with the victory,” Félix said. “We can't get too caught up with the lead that we have now. We have to stayed focused match after match.”
Valencia opened the scoring with a beautiful curling long-range shot by Uros Racic in the 11th minute, but Félix equalized off a corner kick in the 23rd and Suárez put the hosts ahead with a well-placed low shot into the far corner in the 54th from a Félix pass. Correa sealed the victory by completing a cross from Marcos Llorente in the 72nd.
Suárez, who netted a late winner against Eibar last weekend, is now one of the league’s leading scorers with 12 goals, along with Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri.
Valencia, which was unbeaten in five matches in all competitions, stayed in 14th place. It has the same 20 points as Alavés, the first team inside the relegation zone after 20 matches.
Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby had to be replaced early in the second half because of an apparent muscle injury.
BARCELONA ON A ROLL
Frenkie de Jong scored in the 39th and set up Riqui Puig’s 89th-minute goal to give Barcelona its fourth league win in a row as Messi served the second of his two-game suspension for hitting an opponent.
The Catalan club moved a point in front of Sevilla, which on Saturday beat Cádiz 3-0.
It was the first time Barcelona won four consecutive league matches this season, with all four victories coming in away matches. It hasn't lost in nine straight league games.
“We've improved since the year started,” De Jong said. “We've only played away games in the league and won all of them. We are doing better.”
De Jong scored into the open net after the Elche defence failed to fully clear a cross from Martin Braithwaite to Antoine Griezmann inside the area. The Dutch midfielder made a well-placed cross for Puig’s late header for his first-ever Spanish league goal.
Marc-André Ter Stegen made a crucial foot-save to keep Barcelona ahead in the 56th after Elche forward Emiliano Rigoni entered the area in a one-on-one situation. The breakaway for the hosts was prompted after a blunder by Barcelona defender Óscar Mingueza, who gave the ball away near midfield.
“It’s one of those plays that can make the difference in the match,” Elche defender Gonzalo Verdú said. “The goalkeeper made a tremendous save. A goal there could have changed the match.”
Barcelona was coming off a 2-0 win over third-division club Cornellà in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey on Thursday, when Messi served the first match of his suspension for hitting an opponent in the team’s 3-2 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final on Jan. 17.
Elche, winless in its last 13 league games, was second-to-last in the 20-team standings.
Celta Vigo was held 1-1 against Eibar to extend its winless streak to five matches in all competitions. It had lost four straight, including against third-division club Ibiza in the second round of the Copa del Rey. Its last league win was in December.
Celta sits in ninth-place, while Eibar stayed 15th, not far from the relegation zone.
Osasuna snapped its own 13-game winless streak with a 3-1 victory over Granada.
Ante Budimir scored a pair of first-half goals for the hosts, who hadn't won in the league since October.
The win moved Osasuna out of the relegation zone, while Granada stayed in seventh place.
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