Atletico Madrid facing must-win against Valencia

BY foxsports • February 10, 2011

Atletico Madrid's hopes of qualifying for next season's Champions League face a big test Saturday when the club plays fourth-place Valencia in the Spanish league.

The struggling club has won only one of its nine games since the start of the new year and is closer to the relegation zone than Valencia. Atletico trails Valencia by 14 points and is only nine points ahead of Levante, which is 18th.

League leader Barcelona will be looking to stretch its Spanish league record winning run to 17 games at Sporting Gijon on Saturday, while Real Madrid plays at Espanyol on Sunday.

Madrid trails two-time defending champion Barcelona by seven points.

Atletico turned down big-money offers from Chelsea and Madrid for striker Sergio Aguero, and also staved off January interest for Diego Forlan to maintain the bulk of its attack.

But the club hasn't scored in four games and coach Quique Sanchez Flores is facing scrutiny despite guiding the team to Europa League and European Supercup titles last year.

Atletico goalkeeper David De Gea is expected to be available despite hurting his leg with Spain's Under-21 team this week, while midfielder Mario Suarez also returned to training Wednesday.

"We're not enjoying our best season but if we keep fighting we'll move up," De Gea said.

Valencia is unbeaten in eight league matches, with six wins. The club remains a point behind third-place Villarreal for the last direct qualifying place for the Champions League. Whichever club finishes fourth must advance to the group stage from a playoff.

Valencia hopes to have Juanma Mata available as the Spain forward recovers from an ankle injury. Valencia could use Mata in the lineup with a Champions League match against Schalke looming Tuesday.

"Now that they're struggling to get results they are much more dangerous as they'll be out for victory to please their fans," Valencia winger Joaquin Sanchez said ahead of the match at the Vicente Calderon Stadium.

Barcelona would like another victory ahead of the first leg of its Champions League date at Arsenal on Wednesday.

The Catalan club has outscored opponents 60-6 and announced it had reached a deal to extend coach Pep Guardiola's contract to next season.

"There's nobody like Pep," Barcelona defender Maxwell said. "We're all happy with him and we try to respond on the field with our work and effort."

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's chase of a league scoring record continues as the pair are even with 24 goals with 16 games to play. Hugo Sanchez holds the record of 38.

Madrid's attack burst back to life in Sunday's 4-0 win over Real Sociedad as Ronaldo scored two and Emmanuel Adebayor added his first league goal.

"It is very easy to work with (coach Jose) Mourinho. He is an excellent person and he enhances my game," Adebayor said. "He has his own way of dealing with people. He tells you what he expects you to do."

Madrid will be looking to hand Espanyol its second straight loss at the Cornella-El Prat Stadium after it won eight of its first nine games at its Barcelona ground. Espanyol has slipped into sixth-place - one point behind Athletic Bilbao, which trails Valencia by six points.

Also, Racing Santander begins its second stint under coach Marcelino Garcia Toral with Saturday's game against Sevilla. Marcelino, who coached the club during the 2007-08 season, replaced the fired Miguel Angel Portugal.

Also, it's: Levante vs. Almeria; Malaga vs. Getafe; Hercules vs. Zaragoza; Real Sociedad vs. Osasuna; Deportivo La Coruna vs. Villarreal; and Mallorca vs. Athletic Bilbao.