Atletico Madrid defeats Celta Vigo to top La Liga

Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann celebrates after scoring a goal during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Celta Vigo and Atletico Madrid at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo, Spain Sunday Jan. 10, 2016. (Lalo R. Villar/AP)

MADRID — Atletico Madrid returned to the top of the Spanish league on Sunday after second-half goals from Antoine Griezmann and Yannick Carrasco secured a 2-0 win against Celta Vigo.

Griezmann scored from close range in the 49th minute after a nice exchange of passes with Luciano Vietto, and Carrasco sealed the victory in the 80th after getting past a couple of Celta defenders outside the area.

Atletico has 44 points, two more than Barcelona, which beat Granada 4-0 with a hat trick by Lionel Messi on Saturday. Barcelona has a game in hand after playing in the Club World Cup late last year.

Real Madrid, which routed Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 on Saturday in club great Zinedine Zidane’s first match as coach, is third with 40 points after 19 rounds.

There were few significant scoring chances in bad weather at the Balaidos in Vigo, but Griezmann's goal was enough for Atletico to start relying on its solid defence. Atletico has the league's best defence at the halfway stage of the season, having conceded only eight goals.

It was the 14th league victory for Diego Simeone's team, and eighth in its last nine matches. Its only setback during this run was a 1-0 loss at Malaga three rounds ago.

"We have to keep this going, focusing on one game at a time," Griezmann said.

Celta was coming off two straight league losses, but had defeated Cadiz 3-0 on Wednesday in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey. It remains fifth in the standings despite Sunday's loss, but 13 points behind leader Atletico Madrid.

Celta was without forward Manuel "Nolito" Agudo, who has been nursing a muscle injury in his right leg.

Earlier Sunday, striker Cedric Bakambu scored a goal in each half as fourth-place Villarreal defeated Sporting Gijon 2-0 to reach 39 points.

Bakambu scored in the 26th and 51st minutes at the Estadio El Madrigal to give Villarreal its sixth consecutive league victory.

Real Sociedad won 2-0 against visiting Valencia with goals by Brazilian striker Jonathas in the 79th and 82nd.

Valencia remains winless in the league since signing former Manchester United defender Gary Neville as its coach. The team has drawn three matches and lost twice since the former England player took over. Valencia's winless streak in the league reached eight matches, and it's 11th in the 20-team standings.

Real Betis, which lost 1-0 at Getafe on Saturday, announced that it fired coach Pepe Mel after the team's winless streak was extended to six games. Betis lost its last three matches.