Atletico Pass Another Tough Test...

Atletico faced by far the toughest test of La Liga's leading trio at the weekend, but passed their trip to San Mames with flying colours. It looks like there really is no stopping them...

Last Updated: 01/04/14 at 08:16 Post Comment

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There is a fairly decent chance the ever-protesting Barcelona and Real Madrid supporters might have something to say in the matter, but it really does feel fitting that Atlético Madrid should be handed the league title right now, and everyone just give up on the final seven matches of the Spanish league season. Whilst this somewhat drastic action is not exactly in the realms of fair competition, the effort put in and results pulled out by the Rojiblancos deserve a giant, shiny trophy.

Saturday's away trip to San Mamés to take on fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao was another one of those matches that had most Primera pundits forecasting - this column included - that reality would bite for Diego Simeone's side. Once again, though, an inspired Atlético proved everyone utterly wrong after producing a tremendous 2-1 win, despite going 1-0 behind to Athletic early on in the game.

It was the relentless Diego Costa who hauled his team back into the match, with an equalising effort on the way to a victory that keeps Atletico top of the table. "We just couldn't stop him," admitted Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde, as Costa chalked up his 25th La Liga goal of the campaign - just three fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo.

As Simeone admitted, there is no rest for the wicked in the title race, with Atlético's players now being called into battle once again in the small matter of a Champions League double-header against Barcelona. "We'll get up, put on our tracksuits, eat and sleep," announced the Argentinean coach on his team's tunnel vision ahead of the tie.

The big question is what impact the Champions League games will have on Atleti's energy levels. It is tempting to suggest quite a lot, but Atlético has proved time and time again that this narrative is tosh. The Camp Nou clash is on Tuesday night, followed by a home game against a sometimes wobbly Villarreal, so there is nothing to suggest that 90 minutes of European fun booting Barca about for the fourth time this year will be any major hurdle.

Barcelona also pulled off a hard-fought away result at the weekend when they were originally tipped to struggle. Tata Martino's side were involved in the Catalan derby against Espanyol and had to dig in and hope for some kind of scrap of fortune. That came after 77 minutes, when the referee spotted a handball from Javi López in an aerial challenge from Neymar. There was controversy, of course, as it looked like the ball initially struck Neymar's arm. "If we win, it's because of the referees, if we lose it is an end of a cycle," sighed Dani Alves after the game.

The third team in the title-chasing trio, Real Madrid, had by far the easiest of challenge in a home game against Rayo Vallecano, a side that adores taking the initiative against opponents. It is no real surprise that Madrid prevailed 5-0 using the counter-attacking speed of Ronaldo and Bale to full effect, with the Welshman coming up with a brace to bring his tally to 12. Tellingly though, none of those goals are against the three other members of La Liga's top four, an indication that Bale's first season with Madrid still leaves plenty to be desired.

Carlo Ancelotti's team are taking on Borussia Dortmund in their own Champions League double header, an outfit perceived to be considerably weaker than last year's version which ran Madrid ragged in the semi-finals.

Real Madrid are currently three points off Atlético - four if you factor in an inferior head-to-head record - and will be desperately hoping that their title rivals slugging it out over two Champions League games will allow some kind of slip-up. However, Atlético have proven again and again and again that there really is no stopping them. Whatever it is the Rojiblancos are having for breakfast after putting on their tracksuits every morning, this column could do with a dose.

Tim Stannard

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