Atletico poised to break Madrid's derby dominance
BARCELONA, Spain (AP)
Hardened by coach Diego Simeone and fueled by striker Radamel Falcao, Atletico Madrid appears poised to finally break Real Madrid's dominance of the Spanish-capital derby with a long-awaited victory its fans have been coveting for 13 years.
Atletico enters Saturday's game at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in second place and a commanding eight points ahead of its crosstown rival after its best start in club history with 11 wins, a draw and one defeat.
''I won't be content with a draw. When players go out on the pitch, we go out to win and with a competitive spirit to play better than our adversary,'' Falcao told SER radio. ''We are very strong as a team. We are, perhaps, more united.''
Earlier, league leader Barcelona hosts Athletic Bilbao with forward Lionel Messi only three goals shy of matching German great Gerd Mueller's scoring milestone from 1972 of 85 goals for club and country in a calendar year.
Falcao, a Colombia international, has 11 goals this season, only trailing Messi with 19 and Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo with 12.
Atletico hasn't led Madrid by as many points heading into a derby since the 1995-96 season, when Simeone, then playing as a midfielder, helped Atletico win the Spanish league and Copa del Rey titles.
The former Argentina international returned as coach last year to rescue an Atletico side that had become prone to blowing big leads.
And without making huge changes in personnel, Simeone quickly forged his squad into one of Spain's toughest competitors and went on to win the Europa League title.
''Simeone has made Atletico into a team,'' said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque, a former Real Madrid manager. ''(Before) it had many ups and downs, but now it has consistency.''
Since losing 4-1 to Madrid last April, Atletico has only lost once in 19 league matches.
Even so, Atletico has a lot of recent history to overcome. Madrid has won 17 times in their last 23 meetings, with Atletico only being able to salvage six draws since its last victory over Madrid in 1999.
Ronaldo hasn't scored in three matches but has an impressive scoring record against Atletico. The Portugal forward scored five times in Madrid's two wins last season.
Madrid's loss at Real Betis last weekend left it 11 points behind Barcelona and the defending champions can ill afford another slip up if they want to keep alive any hope of catching the pacesetters.
''It's a thrilling match that everyone has been waiting for,'' Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas said. ''They are arriving in great form, but for us it is a vital game. We have to win and then wait to see what Barcelona does. We have to win all our games from now until the end of the year.''
Barcelona leads Atletico by three points and welcomes a Bilbao side that is disappointing after reaching both the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals last season.
Under coach Tito Vilanova in his first season, Barcelona is unbeaten and can establish the best start in league history with a 13th win in 14 rounds.
The last time these two teams met, Messi scored to help Barcelona win the Copa del Rey. It was the Argentina forward's 73rd and last goal of the 2011-12 season for Barcelona, breaking the previous European club record of 67 goals set by Mueller in 1972-73.
Bilbao is only four points off the relegation zone, mainly due to a defense which has conceded 27 goals, third most in the league.
''Bilbao has lost a step this season,'' Barcelona midfielder Thiago Alcantara said. ''The exit of Javi Martinez (to Bayern Munich) hurt them. But they still have good players that can lead them back to where they were.''
Also Saturday, fourth-place Malaga visits Getafe, while Valencia hosts Real Sociedad. Osasuna plays Rayo Vallecano on Friday.
On Sunday, Javier Aguirre takes charge of his first game for last-place Espanyol at Granada after taking over from the departed Mauricio Pochettino midweek. Elsewhere, it's: Deportivo La Coruna vs. Real Betis; Celta Vigo vs. Levante; and Mallorca vs. Real Zaragoza.
Valladolid is at Sevilla on Monday.