MADRID, Spain, Sep 21 – Atletico Madrid boss Diego Simeone believes Barcelona remain the benchmark, ahead of Wednesday’s first blockbuster clash of the La Liga season between his Champions League finalists and the Spanish champions.
Simeone’s men dumped Barca out of the Champions League for the second time in three years last season, but the Argentine has yet to taste victory against the Catalans in La Liga during his five-year reign.
“They continue to play brilliant football and have the players that most make the difference individually and collectively,” Simeone said on Tuesday.
“Despite the fact they didn’t win the Champions League last year, that puts them in an incredible place.”
Barca’s two victories in La Liga meetings between the sides last season proved decisive in the title race as Atletico finished just three points adrift of Luis Enrique’s men, in third.
Atletico haven’t won at the Camp Nou since Fernando Torres scored twice in a 3-1 victory during his first stint at the club in 2006.
However, Torres believes Atletico travel to Barcelona at the right time after hitting 10 goals without reply in their last three games.
“It’s a good time to visit Barcelona,” he said after netting twice in Atletico’s 5-0 thrashing of Sporting Gijon on Saturday.
“It seems like they are playing as we have become accustomed to. They are the most difficult opponent we have faced in the last few years without a doubt and we know how difficult it will be.
“But when you are winning and playing well it always gives you that little more confidence.”
Yet, both sides face being cut adrift in the early running for the title with Barca already three points behind league leaders Real Madrid and Atletico a further point back.
“They are one of the best teams in La Liga and clearly a contender for all the titles as always in Simeone’s reign,” warned Barca boss Enrique.
“There hasn’t been an easy game against Atletico Madrid in the past few years.
“They are a direct title rival and these are three very important points.”
Enrique will have the luxury of lining up Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in attack after the celebrated trio scored 10 times in their first two starts of the season together in Barca’s last two games.
Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets will also return after being rested for the 5-1 thrashing of Leganes on Saturday, whilst Javier Mascherano will partner Gerard Pique at the heart of the defence in the absence of the injured Samuel Umtiti.
– Real eye record –
Real can extend their lead at the top before Barca and Atletico kick off and set a La Liga record with a 17th straight win at home to Villarreal earlier on Wednesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale missed Sunday’s 2-0 win at Espanyol due to illness and injury respectively, but both are set to return.
“They are fine. They have trained normally, the two of them are 100 percent,” said Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane on Tuesday.
Victory at the weekend saw Real set a new club record for consecutive league wins and match the 16 straight wins Barcelona managed under Pep Guardiola in 2010/11.
However, Zidane warned records will mean nothing if Real don’t end a five-year drought without the league title come May.
“The records are nice and we are going to try to keep winning. That is what we want, but we haven’t won anything,” added the Frenchman.
In the absence of the injured Casemiro and rested Luka Modric, James Rodriguez is likely to be handed just his second start of the season in midfield after opening the scoring at Espanyol.
At the bottom of the table Valencia are looking to pick up their first points of the season when interim boss Voro takes charge for the visit of Alaves on Thursday following the sacking of Pako Ayestaran.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Real Madrid v Villarreal, Celta Vigo v Sporting Gijon (both 1800), Barcelona v Atletico Madrid, Granada v Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad v Las Palmas (all 2000)
Deportivo la Coruna v Leganes, Osasuna v Espanyol (1800), Valencia v Alaves (2000)