The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
5 things to know about the Spanish league as Atletico's title credentials under scrutiny
MADRID - Atletico Madrid's Spanish league title aspirations will be under further scrutiny after a week when it lost three matches and saw its slim lead atop the standings erased by Barcelona and Real Madrid.
All three clubs are tied on 57 points going into the 24th round of games, with Madrid on the best run of the co-leaders, going unbeaten in 24 games in all competitions. That includes back-to-back Copa del Rey wins over Atletico to reach the final.
Here's a look at some of this weekend's storyline's:
ATLETICO ON THE ROPES
Atletico badly needs a win to get its title aspirations back on track.
After starting the first 35 games with a single defeat, it has now lost its last three straight games.
For a team that had only known success for most of this season, rebounding from the subpar performances is perhaps the biggest test to its season ahead of Valladolid's visit to the Vicente Calderon on Saturday.
Coach Diego Simeone admits that fatigue may finally be catching up with a limited squad that is also still in the hunt for the Champions League.
MADRID ON A ROLL
Madrid became the first Spanish club in nearly a century to reach the Copa del Rey final without conceding a goal in the competition, yet that still won't earn Spain captain Iker Casillas a return to the first team come Sunday at Getafe.
Diego Lopez has been the regular Madrid goalkeeper in the league despite Casillas' stellar play in both the domestic cup competition and the Champions League. Casillas has not conceded for close to 900 minutes.
The goalie controversy even led Carlos Ancelotti's daughter Katia to chirp in with her opinion. She backs Lopez.
"I've spoken with the coach and everything is settled," said Casillas, who received an apology from his Italian coach over the matter. "When someone apologizes, the correct thing to do is to accept it."
The spring in Lionel Messi's goalscoring step has returned of late, and Barcelona is looking all the better for it.
Wednesday's 1-1 cup draw at Real Sociedad put the Spanish champions into the final from one of the Catalan club's most inspiring performances of the season.
Like goal scorer Messi, the team was full of verve and showcased much of the slick, quick combinations that it has come to characterize in recent seasons but that have dropped off under coach Gerardo Martino.
"There's a good feeling in the team," said midfielder Andres Iniesta, who looks fully recovered from recent injury setbacks. "When the team is in good shape, everything goes better."
BATTLE FOR FOURTH
Athletic Bilbao and Villarreal are locked in an exciting duel for fourth in the league, which means a Champions League qualifying place.
Bilbao enjoys a four-point lead over the "Yellow Submarine," which has already exceeded expectations by earning promotion from the second division last season.
Athletic is unbeaten in five league games but has drawn its last pair going into Sunday's game against Espanyol. Villarreal, meanwhile, has lost two of three before Saturday's game against Celta Vigo.
Villarreal is without injured goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, while midfielder Cani is close to returning.
Beating Barcelona always lifts a team's morale, and Valencia appears to be surging after its own surprise win at the Camp Nou several weeks back.
It is also adding some value to a team looking for a buyer.
Valencia followed up its 3-2 win at Barcelona with a 5-0 drubbing of Real Betis last weekend, just as the club looks to sell with heavy debts and a stadium waiting to be completed.
Opponent Sevilla, meanwhile, is seventh but sliding down the standings after losing three straight. It is without a league win since Jan. 5.
Both teams have 31 points.
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