BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Atlético Madrid has a chance rekindle its bid to win a second straight Spanish league title.
Real Madrid is already 10 points ahead at the top of the standings before the midway point of the season, while fourth-place Atlético has struggled to keep in touch behind both Sevilla and a surprising Real Betis.
The defending champions can close that gap on Sunday when they travel across town to play Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Atlético strengthened the squad that last season ended Madrid and Barcelona’s seven-year hold on the league title. With striker Antoine Griezmann back after a frustrating stint at Barcelona to join Luis Suárez in attack, and Rodrigo de Paul adding more depth to midfield, Atlético looked poised to stay on top while also taking another shot at an elusive European Cup.
Instead, the team has faced unexpected setbacks, including a 2-2 draw at last-place Levante and a 2-1 loss to Mallorca last week.
And Atlético needed all the breaks to go its way this week to squeak into the round of 16 of the Champions League. The team advanced only after it won at Porto 3-1 to break a run of three straight losses in the group phase.
Griezmann was key to the victory over Porto. The France forward scored the opener before passing for Ángel Correa to double the lead. De Paul rounded it off with a third goal.
“It is normal that our fans demand more from us,” Atlético coach Diego Simeone said after the victory in Portugal. “It provokes us, it spurs us into action, just like I said after the loss to Mallorca.”
Against Real Madrid, Atlético may be without Suárez — the team’s top scorer in the league with seven goals — after he left the match at Porto early with an apparent injury. There are also doubts about the readiness of defenders Kieran Trippier, José Giménez and Stefan Savic, who all missed the Porto match with injuries.
Real Madrid will host Atlético on a high after it won its Champions League group following a 2-0 victory over Inter Milan.
Carlo Ancelotti has quickly settled into his second stint as coach of Real Madrid since replacing Zinedine Zidane. He has Madrid on an unbeaten run of nine matches in all competitions and in firm control of the domestic league.
Karim Benzema, who leads the league with 12 goals, is doubtful for the derby, however. He left the 2-0 victory at Real Sociedad early with a muscle injury and did not play against Inter.
If Benzema does not play, Real Madrid will still have Vinícius Júnior to leads its attack. With 10 league goals and great dribbling skills at high speed, the Brazilian winger so far is the sensation of the competition.
Sevilla, which is eight points behind Real Madrid, visits Athletic Bilbao on Saturday following its Champions League exit. Betis hosts Sociedad on Sunday in a contest between two of the most attractive attacks in the league. Betis, which is coached by Manuel Pellegrini, beat Barcelona 1-0 at Camp Nou last week, while fifth-place Sociedad has lost two in a row to slide down the standings.
Barcelona, in seventh place and 16 points off the pace, plays at Osasuna on Sunday following another humiliating loss to Bayern Munich. The German team ended Barcelona’s 17-year run of reaching Champions League knockout rounds with a 3-0 victory.
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