Atletico Madrid-Barcelona is not a title decider, but it will decide whether or not Atletico Madrid are true title challengers or whether we can expect their challenge to drop away in the coming months.
Atletico Madrid can banish any lingering doubts about their title credentials when they host Barcelona today but will have to subdue a resurgent Lionel Messi if they are to vanquish the champions.
It has been almost 20 years since the Spanish capital’s second club mounted a genuine challenge for the La Liga crown as Barca and Real Madrid, the world’s two richest teams by income, have shared the spoils apart from brief flurries of success from Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna.
Last season’s third place was the best Atletico had managed since they won a league and King’s Cup double in 1996 and they even spent two seasons in the second division at the start of the millennium.
Current coach Diego Simeone, a former Argentina midfielder who was in the 1996 team, has revived memories of those glory days since he took over at the end of 2011, honing a mean defence and getting the best out of players like forward Diego Costa and midfielder Koke. Atletico, the King’s Cup holders, have won all their matches at their Calderon stadium this season apart from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup in August when they drew 1-1 with Barca.
Victory today would put them three points clear of the Catalan giants with half the season played, while Atletico’s city rivals Real Madrid are five points behind in third and play at Espanyol on Sunday.
Koke, who earned a call-up to the Spain squad last year, has played a key role in Atletico’s resurgence, developing a lethal partnership with Costa and netting some important goals himself, including the winner in last Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Malaga.
However, beating Barca to head the standings at the halfway stage of the campaign would be a mere “anecdote” as what counted was the state of play at the climax of the season in May, he warned on Wednesday.
“It is irrelevant if you win this match if in the end you have not achieved your objectives,” he told a news conference that coincided with his 22nd birthday.
Atletico Madrid-Barcelona is not a title decider, but it will decide whether or not Atletico Madrid are true title challengers or whether we can expect their challenge to drop away in the coming months. Likewise the game will show just how good Barca are, or whether or not they can be bullied off the pitch by a side of Atletico’ s intensity and class.
The good news for Barca is that Leo Messi is back after scoring two goals as a second half substitute in the Copa del Rey and Neymar, who missed Wednesday’ s match with a stomach bug, should also be fit.
The even better news for Barca is that the duo have not been missed as Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez have been in fine form of late and Barca coach, Tata Martino faces a selection problem in deciding who will start the game on the bench.
Atletico will also be at full strength after defender Juanfran was cleared to play and the Vicente Calderon Stadium will look to see their side stifle Barca in midfield and then hurt them on the break as Diego Costa bullies his way through the visiting defense.
Fascinating though that game is, it is not the only match this weekend.
Valencia will look to continue their recovery under new coach, Juan Antonio Pizzi away to a Celta Vigo side that plays good football, but leaks goals. Valencia have looked more intense in their last two games and Celta could struggle in defense against a well-motivated team.
Saturday ends as Sevilla look to claim their fourth consecutive away win in Elche, where the home side look to have run out of steam and are dropping towards the danger zone, despite trying to play attractive football.
Real Madrid’ s trip to play Espanyol is the highlight of Sunday as Cristiano Ronaldo would like to prepare to travel to the Balon D’ Or awards with more goals to his credit and Xabi Alonso celebrate his new contract with three points.
Espanyol, however, are capable of imposing a high rhythm on their home games and may think they have a chance of taking a point against a team that traditionally does well against them.
Sunday also sees a Madrid derby between Getafe, who need to return to form after a poor run of results, and Rayo Vallecano, who are second bottom of the table and have the worst defense in Spain, despite their brave attacking instincts.
Bottom of the table Betis simply have to beat fellow strugglers, Osasuna, while Levante entertain Malaga in a mid-table clash before the round of matches ends on Monday with a fascinating game between Villarreal and Real Sociedad: two sides that are in form and looking to qualify for Europe at the end of the campaign.
Athletic Bilbao vs. Almeria
Celta Vigo vs. Valencia
Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona
LIVE ON SS5, 10:45PM
Elche vs. Sevilla
Getafe vs. Rayo
Real Betis vs. Osasuna
Espanyol vs. Real Madrid
LIVE ON SS5, 9PM
Levante vs. Malaga
LIVE ON SS3, 11PM