No room for complacency as rivals Atletico find their rhythm

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Madrid (AFP)

Real Madrid have picked up their pace and Barcelona are gaining momentum, but Atletico Madrid have remained strong atop La Liga ahead of what could prove to be a pivotal month in the title race.

A surprise loss to third-division team Cornella in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday contrasts sharply with Atletico’s form in the league, where only the loss to their capital rivals last month blocks an otherwise streak of results. perfect which dates back to mid-October. .

Two narrow wins against Getafe and Alaves last week made them four league wins on the rebound since Atletico’s setback at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium, where a hesitant and passive performance reassured Madrid.

Atletico had given in when it mattered most and many felt it posed a danger to their long-term prospects.

But as Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid used the derby victory to string together an eight-game unbeaten streak, including seven wins and five with clean sheets, Atletico also responded.

Luis Suarez has scored back-to-back winners against Getafe and Alaves, his tap-in at Mendizorroza on Sunday prompting the kind of celebrations to suggest his team really thinks they can go the distance.

“We have to continue on this path,” said coach Diego Simeone. “The league is complex, there are a lot of pitfalls and you have to be constantly prepared, you can’t relax. ”

When Madrid last hosted a race like this, it was to win last season’s title, as Barcelona faded with the trophy in sight.

Still, Atletico did walk, even though the ultimate nature of their victory over Alaves, coupled with Wednesday’s loss to Cornella, means there can be no room for complacency this weekend.

“Everyone wants to win and in the second half of the season there is no longer the same calm,” said Simeone. “It will be more difficult, with teams fighting to save themselves, to qualify for Europe. We must remain vigilant. ”

– ‘Always a chance’ –

Atletico face Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and then Sevilla on Tuesday, two tough matches that will test their courage once again, especially as Bilbao will be keen to claim a first victory under new manager Marcelino Garcia Toral.

Madrid, on the other hand, have what appears to be a gracious period ahead of them. Their next six matches will all be against teams currently in the bottom seven of the table, starting from Osasuna on Saturday.

When they lost to Shakhtar Donestsk in early December Zidane was back on the shooting line but the Frenchman returned to his most reliable players and his side quickly recovered.

Barcelona also look rejuvenated, their 3-2 win over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday after a scintillating performance from Lionel Messi.

He scored twice and could have pulled off a hat-trick while players like Ousmane Dembele, Pedri, Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong all contributed to a smooth attacking display.

It was also enough to rekindle their hopes, although a seven-point deficit behind Atletico, who have two games in hand on both the Catalans and Madrid, still seems a big gap to close.

“There is always a chance,” Koeman said. “The season is very long. You can have ups and downs in a season and a team that is doing really well might suddenly have a hard time. ”

If Barca can win in Granada on Saturday, the belief will grow. Madrid will travel to Osasuna later on Saturday evening. Earlier today, Sevilla, sixth, faced Real Sociedad fourth.

Calendar (GMT times)

Friday

Celta Vigo against Villarreal (2000)

Saturday

Séville v Real Sociedad (1300), Atletico Madrid v Athletic Bilbao (1515), Grenade v Barcelone (1730), Osasuna v Real Madrid (2000)

Sunday

Levante v Eibar (1300), Cadiz v Alaves (1515), Elche v Getafe (1730), Real Valladolid v Valence (2000)

On Monday

Huesca against Real Betis (2000)

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