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Atleti and Barça duel for top spot

Just a single goal separates the Liga leaders going into the winter break

Valencia’s defenders bounce off Diego Costa last Sunday.
Valencia’s defenders bounce off Diego Costa last Sunday.ULY MARTÍN

A straight battle for the top spot in Primera División will unfold in Madrid this weekend; but to the delight of the red-and-white half of the capital, it will not involve Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. Atlético, joint top of the league with Barcelona on 43 points and only below the reigning champion by dint of a single goal scored by the Catalans, takes on Levante at home while Gerardo Martino’s side faces a potentially sticky trip to Getafe.

The southern Madrid side sits in eighth and much like Osasuna, which held Real to a 2-2 tie in the last round of fixtures and Barça to 0-0 earlier in the season, it enjoys putting up a fight when the big boys come to town. The continued absence of star forward Leo Messi has been admirably countered by the Brazilian sensation Neymar, who has been obligingly banging them in of late, but midfield fulcrum Xavi is a doubt for the match. At the back, Barça is returning to full strength. Dani Alves was able to train normally this week and Jordi Alba made a substitute appearance in the midweek cup win over Cartagena.

However, Getafe has conceded a miserly seven at home so far this season and should have Romanian international forward Ciprian available after he sat out the midweek 4-1 defeat of Girona in the cup — a result that meant these two sides will meet three times in the next three weeks. “It’s a good moment to play them; I can see that the Catalans are a little distracted with independence at the moment,” quipped club president Ángel Torres on a visit by staff and players to the children’s ward of Getafe University Hospital on Friday.

Coach Luis García Plaza was a little more down to Earth: “Let’s see if we win the lottery.”

Some would argue that Atlético did exactly that last summer when it sold Radamel Falcao for around 50 million euros and entrusted its attack for the season to Diego Costa and David Villa, an acquisition from Barcelona who cost a fraction of that fee. Costa has already scored 17 in the league this season, the same number as Cristiano Ronaldo. Few defenses have found an answer to the physicality of Costa this year. The Spaniard-Brazilian’s game plan is not subtle: pick up the ball and charge toward goal, letting any defenders bounce off his considerable frame. But it works.

Levante is more or less comfortable in 11th and last week defeated Elche for its first win in six league matches, while also pulling off a reverse in the cup to overturn a 1-0 first leg deficit against Recreativo, scoring a morale-boosting four goals. But Atlético has been beaten just three times in the Calderón in a season-and-a-half, and with the prospect of leading the division into the winter break, Levante will do well to muster anything resembling festive cheer from the game.

“Diego Simeone is doing a spectacular job,” said Levante coach Joaquín Caparrós of his opposite number. “Personally I would like to see Atlético win the league. It would be good for soccer after so many years of Madrid and Barcelona. I also think they are a solid candidate to win the Champions League.”

That may be getting a little ahead of time, but there is no doubt Atlético has emerged as a serious challenger domestically at least. A single goal more than Barcelona manages this weekend and the rojiblancos will top the tree when the Christmas holidays arrive.

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