Atletico faces Elche in 1st of 5 ‘finals’
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone has called their remaining Spanish league games five ”finals,” the first of them against Elche on Friday before receiving Chelsea in the Champions League.
Atletico leads Real Madrid by three points and Barcelona by four.
Madrid will get a rest to prepare for Bayern Munich in the Champions League after beating Barcelona 2-1 to win the Copa del Rey thanks to Gareth Bale’s spectacular goal on Wednesday, and won’t play Valladolid until May 7.
Barcelona can provisionally overtake Madrid with a win over fourth-place Athletic Bilbao on Sunday as it looks to salvage its season.
Here are five things to know about Atletico’s title bid with five rounds to play:
ONE MORE STEP: While all the headlines in Spain on Thursday lauded Bale’s gallop to score the 85th-minute winner over Barcelona in the Copa final, Atletico is content to remain out of the spotlight as it targets its home match against Elche. Atletico is undefeated in league play at its Vicente Calderon Stadium, and it would be a major upset if Elche can change that. ”We are right there,” Atletico forward Adrian Lopez said. ”It’s getting closer and closer. We have five games left and we are in first place. We will try to take each game as it comes.”
CRUISING COSTA: One big reason Atletico is on course for its first league title in 18 years is striker Diego Costa. He has 26 goals in the league, needing only two more to pull even with leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo. The Brazilian should take aim at Ronaldo’s tally against Elche, as his injury when he banged his leg into the post last weekend turned out to be only a cut.
END OF ERA? Barcelona’s season has crumbled in a span of eight days, with three straight losses seeing it out of the Champions League, the Copa del Rey final, and with its league title defense in serious danger. It is widely speculated in the Spanish media that Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino will be fired this offseason, but his Madrid counterpart doesn’t think this run of poor results marks the end of a winning era for his fiercest rival. ”Maybe things haven’t gone their way this year, but I am sure that they will fight for the league title until the end,” Carlo Ancelotti said. ”I don’t think this winning cycle for Barcelona is over.”
INJURY TO INSULT: The defeat to Real Madrid also cost Barcelona a number of injuries. Neymar and left back Jordi Alba were ruled out for a month due to injuries picked up in the final, and the hosts may be without defender Marc Bartra, who is day-to-day after also tweaking a muscle injury. Midfielder Sergio Busquets will be unavailable as he serves a one-game suspension. A hurting Barcelona faces a tough match at Camp Nou when Bilbao comes to town looking to protect its hold on the final Champions League berth. Bilbao’s young squad will have the advantage of playing a Barcelona side weary both in body and spirit after its demoralizing loss. Bilbao leads fifth-place Sevilla by six points, but can ill afford a slip with the Andalusian side visiting Bilbao in the following round.
MADRID HIGH: Madrid will have the weekend off to recover and prepare for Bayern. Ronaldo said he hopes to be ready to play against the titleholder when it comes to the Spanish capital on Wednesday after he missed the Copa del Rey final with a leg muscle injury on top of an already sore left knee. ”We have been able to put the cherry on top,” said goalkeeper Iker Casillas, as the team celebrated the cup title in Madrid with its fans late into the night. ”I hope, I wish, that we will be there in the other competitions that are left.”