Griezmann standing in way of Barcelona's title march

JOSEPH WILSON
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FC Barcelona's Coutinho, left, duels for the ball with Eibar's Ruben Pena during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Eibar at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Antoine Griezmann is almost single-handedly keeping Atletico Madrid in the Spanish league title race.

With the league at its halfway point, Griezmann is challenging Barcelona's Lionel Messi for the status of most valuable player for their clubs.

While Messi is beyond doubt the top player in Spain — and more — Atletico has stayed in second place behind Barcelona almost exclusively thanks to the goals of Griezmann.

The France forward has done more than any other of his teammates, especially in recent weeks, to keep Atletico five points behind Barcelona. And with Sevilla and Real Madrid already 10 points adrift, Griezmann's Atletico looks like the only serious challenger standing in the way of Barcelona's title defense.

Griezmann is on a five-game scoring streak and he has scored Atletico's last six goals — five in the league and one in the Copa del Rey. He has found the net nine times and made six direct passes for goals in the league this season.

Messi leads the league with 17 goals scored, but he also has Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele combining to add another 21 goals between them.

In contrast, nobody else at Atletico has scored more than two goals in the league. Indeed, the second key player at Atletico is goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who anchored a defense that has allowed a league-low 13 goals.

Griezmann secured another win for Diego Simeone's side on Sunday when he confidently stepped up to the spot and blasted a penalty kick to secure a 1-0 victory over Levante.

There were inspired runs by Victor "Vitolo" Machin and a couple of attempts by Angel Correa and Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion, but Atletico's attack mainly depended on the quickness, speed and scoring touch of Griezmann.

Griezmann, however, said he was not satisfied with Atletico's attack.

"We need to have more poise when we arrive to the opponent's area, that's what our coach says," Griezmann said. "Maybe we have to shoot when we pass, and vice versa. It's not easy. At the end, a 1-0 win is worth the same as 8-0, so we are happy."

Griezmann helped France to the World Cup title last summer — a feat that has eluded Messi's Argentina — shortly after guiding Atletico to the Europa League title.

He also turned down an offer to join Messi at Barcelona, opting to remain at the club where he is the undisputed star.

Now he is proving to be Atletico's best reason to dream about winning another Spanish league title, or even an elusive Champions League crown.

"We all dig down deep and do our part when things get tough," Griezmann said. "Without my teammates, I couldn't do anything."

WILLIAMS' BRACE

Athletic Bilbao's Inaki Williams has everything a team could want in a forward — speed, power and a good work ethic.

Everything, except for the ability to score lots of goals.

The 24-year-old Williams finally broke a two-year scoring drought at Bilbao's San Mames Stadium to lead it to a much-needed 2-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday.

Williams netted both goals, and they were almost worth such a long wait for fans.

Williams got his first goal when he cut back from the left side and blasted a strike into the far corner of the net.

He topped that in the 84th with an eye-catching, 50-meter solo run that started in Bilbao's territory. Williams used one touch to tap the ball forward before he sped between two defenders, streaked to the area, and rounded goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik before gliding the ball home.

"What I have experienced today is incredible," Williams said. "Personally, I am so happy to score at San Mames after such a long time. It is very important."

Williams also scored Bilbao's winning goal last round on the road. Its first back-to-backs wins of the season were good enough to lift the Basque club out of the relegation zone.

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