Atlético Top La Liga as Barca and Real Look to Catch Up in Unpredictable Title Race

For the first time since 1996, Atletico Madrid lead La Liga after a 4-0 win over Real Sociedad; a fitting tribute to Luis Aragones, who sadly passed away on Saturday. Following Barcelona’s defeat against Valencia, Atletico had the chance to rise to the top and they took it in style. Yet again the understanding in the team paid dividends, with David Villa opening the scoring to make it 11 goals this season. Then Diego Costa ended his mini goal drought with his first league goal since the winter break to make it 2-0. Finally, Brazilians Miranda and Diego capped off a wonderful night at the Vincente Calderon with the goals that put the gloss on the final score.

It was a perfect night for Atletico and a perfect second debut for Diego. The 28-year-old arrives from Wolfsburg after signing a contract until the end of the season, and he adds more potency to an already stellar attack. Atletico will hope his impact at the club is similar to that of the last time he turned out for them. In 2011-12 he had a successful loan spell at Atletico as he helped win the Europa League in the early days of Simeone’s reign. After this win over Sociedad, Atletico now lead the league by three points and many pundits are tipping them to win the title. However, Simeone is keeping silent on the matter:

“I insist. I don’t think we can win the league. Our motto is silence and work and they will not make me believe something I don’t,” he told reporters at a press conference.

Despite Simeone’s reluctance to name Atletico as title favorites, it’s hard not to back them looking at the current table. Their games ahead of the Madrid derby in La Liga are welcoming as they face relegation candidates Almeria, Real Valladolid and Osasuna. Furthermore, in the Champions League they have been handed with a tame tie as they face a struggling AC Milan side that’s trying to find its feet under Clarence Seedorf.

Also, the way in which Simeone uses his squad is something that can only boost their title chances. Every player in the Atletico squad has a purpose and each player knows their role. Thus, Atletico should have very little squad unrest bar Cristian Rodriguez, who has complained on few occasions of his lack of playing time.

Comparing Atletico to Barcelona, they are in a much healthier shape. On Saturday they lost 3-2 at home to Valencia, a game that provided the media with sticks to beat the current Barcelona team with. Following an excellent first forty minutes in which they took the lead, they let it slip in complacent fashion, with Valencia inflicting Barca’s first home defeat since 2012. The second goal for Valencia was one that has fueled a tirade of criticism on Barcelona for not strengthening at the back. Dani Alves showed how weak his defending can be at times as he allowed Pablo Piatti, the smallest player on the pitch, to leap over him and head home.

Barcelona not only have their problems at the back, it has been far from the ideal start for Lionel Messi since his return from injury. He has been unable to recapture his goalscoring form since his injury, a penalty against Valencia is the only league goal he has to show for himself since returning. The reason for this drought has been blamed on the fact that he is dropping deep to receive the ball. He hasn’t been relying on Xavi or Iniesta to do the connecting play as much and he has attempted to beat his man on several occasions when a pass would be the better option. There is a good argument to say that he needs reeling in after trying to prove himself after his injury, whether Tata Martino is the man to do that is another question.

Real Madrid are currently a bigger threat than Barcelona the way things are shaping up. Los Blancos earned themselves a creditable away draw as they drew 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao at the new San Mames in a game that was marred by a Cristiano Ronaldo red card. The Portuguese received the red for violent conduct after pushing Carlos Gurpegi in the face and confronting Ander Iturraspe.

He will now miss the next three La Liga matches, a real blow for Real Madrid who face Villarreal, Getafe and Elche. It may not be as disastrous as it first appears for Real Madrid, the hardest game of three is a home game against Villarreal, and Jese Rodriguez has been performing well enough to fill the boots of Cristiano Ronaldo for the short term.

Crucially, the season will rest on the games between the top three. For Atletico the focus is clear, maintain form against the teams below the top three and get a result against Real Madrid on March 2nd. For Barcelona they need to win at the Santiago Bernabeu in mid-March as well as their final home against Atletico, and avoid another slip up like last Saturday’s game. Finally, for Real Madrid, they need to beat both Atletico and Barcelona to potentially seal the title come May.