Barcelona and Atletico duel for 1st place in Spanish league
MADRID: Riding a seven-game winning streak and with all of its stars in top form, Barcelona hosts struggling Atletico Madrid this weekend in a match that could help decide the Spanish league title.
Barcelona and Atletico have the same amount of points, with Barcelona ahead on goal difference and with a game in hand.
The Catalan club can start pulling away with a win at the Camp Nou on Saturday, while Atletico has a chance to show it still has what it takes to keep pace despite disappointing results recently.
It will be the last league game between Barcelona and Atletico this season. Both teams will still have to play Real Madrid, which is four points behind in third.
Zinedine Zidane's team, coming off a disappointing draw at struggling Real Betis, will play Espanyol on Sunday at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, where it has been dominant this season.
Fourth-place Villarreal, seven points off the lead and theoretically still in the hunt, hosts Granada on Saturday.
Barcelona will face Atletico Madrid looking to win its eighth game in a row in all competitions.
Luis Enrique's team hasn't lost in 25 matches, dating back to a 2-1 setback against Sevilla in the Spanish league in October.
It is coming off a 3-1 come-from-behind win against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, a result that allowed it to advance to the tournament's semifinals for the sixth straight year.
After dealing with injuries and suspensions the last few weeks, Barcelona on Saturday will be able to count on its top three players Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Neymar and Suarez scored a goal each in the victory over Athletic at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona had its match at Sporting Gijon postponed last year because it played at FIFA's Club World Cup, a tournament it won. The game has been rescheduled for February 17.
Atletico Madrid will arrive at the decisive match against Barcelona looking to rebound from a home elimination to Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals on Wednesday.
After a scoreless first leg, it lost 3-2 at the Vicente Calderon Stadium in its first home defeat since Sept. 30. It was the first time the team conceded three goals all season.
Diego Simeone's team hasn't won in three matches.
"The best way to heal this wound is to win this Saturday," Atletico Madrid captain Gabi Fernandez said. "We have to play a better match than today (Wednesday), that is a given, and just as everyone thought we were the favorites today at home, everyone will think FC Barcelona is the favorite. Maybe the same thing as today happens, but in our favor."
Barcelona defeated Atletico 2-1 at the Vicente Calderon in the league's third round.
MADRID'S HOME EDGE
Real Madrid is gladly back home when it faces Espanyol on Sunday to try to stay close to Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Madrid has scored 39 goals in its 11 home games in the league this season, an average of 3.5 goals per game. In its last four matches at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, Madrid outscored opponents 23-4.
It was at the Bernabeu that Madrid won its first two games under the command of former player Zinedine Zidane, crushing Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 and Sporting Gijon 5-1.
It then was held by Real Betis to a 1-1 draw in Sevilla last weekend despite dominating from the start.
The team's only loss at the Bernabeu was a demoralizing 4-0 defeat to Barcelona.
Colombia midfielder James Rodriguez is set to have another chance as a starter for Real Madrid against Espanyol.
Rodriguez had few opportunities with former coach Rafa Benitez but has been enjoying more playing time under Zinedine Zidane.
The playmaker was in the starting 11 in the 1-1 draw at Real Betis last Sunday, but it will be the first time he gets to play from the start at the Santiago Bernabeu since last year.
Zidane has confirmed that Rodriguez will be replacing Gareth Bale, who remains injured.