The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
5 things to know about this week's Spanish league matches
MADRID - Here are five things to know about this week's Spanish league matches:
SO FAR, SO GOOD
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino has, modestly, suggested he has not yet made his mark on the team, saying his impact on the squad "has been minimal."
However, the heir to Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova has not done badly. Barcelona leads the league ahead of Atletico Madrid and is six points in front of Real Madrid after Saturday's 2-1 win.
Success on the field has enabled the Argentine to make his transition at a leisurely pace.
"I need to think and learn more about the team to be able to use the players in the most judicious manner," he said.
Martino has taken the bedrock of the team — Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes — as the foundation for his squads and has imported some of the training techniques he employed in Rosario, Argentina.
So far, it has been working.
For once, it's not Barcelona and Real Madrid slugging it out alone at the top of the league.
Atletico Madrid is only one point behind league leader Barcelona and five ahead of bitter cross-town rival Real Madrid after 10 rounds.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone's leadership is being praised by his players and the local media, as is the effectiveness of his attacking firepower.
Atletico trounced Real Betis 5-0 on Sunday, and Simeone used the match to test out two of his doubts: the fitness of veteran Spain striker David Villa and the effectiveness of youth team midfielder Oliver Torres.
The 18-year-old Torres needed only 13 seconds to score Atletico's fastest ever league goal and Villa found the back of the net twice before providing Diego Costa with an assist for his 11th league goal of the season and his 13th in all competitions.
Saturday's win over Real Madrid has shown Barcelona fans that their team can survive against tough competition even with a below-par Lionel Messi.
The Argentina forward has been dogged by niggling muscle injuries and against Madrid he played far out on the right flank most of the time and hit one shot that went wide.
Also, he only played for 20 minutes against Osasuna in the previous league match that yielded Barcelona only one point thanks to a 0-0 draw.
Much has been made of video footage taken during the match against Madrid showing Messi coughing. Despite all this, Messi has accumulated a dozen goals this season — eight in the league and four in the Champions League.
His lacklustre performance against Madrid allowed Neymar to shine and also made sure that he did not strain himself physically in a season that ends at the World Cup, the only arena where he has yet to impress.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone has been credited with stimulating his players to win and lifting them when they are down. His enthusiasm for football is contagious, his players often say, and his tactical skill is paying clear dividends.
Simeone is renowned for knowing how to get the best out of individual players and also for fostering a tight-knit team spirit. After his team's 5-0 demolition of Betis, he was blunt.
"Look, what I take from this week is that in Vienna, Villa didn't play, but Raul Garcia did and went for broke," Simeone said. "Against Betis, Villa started, and responded."
Against Betis, the coach said Villa rediscovered the nourishment his soul thrives on, "goals."
"We need Villa at his best," he said.
Simeone's halftime pep talks are famous for acting as a pick-me-up for his squads. Against Betis he said Atletico "started very well, we got an early lead and that dimmed our intensity."
Then came halftime.
"In the second half the team went for the game and rounded off a brilliant performance," he said.
Villarreal is fourth in the league with 20 points, two behind Real Madrid, and over the weekend showed its rivals exactly why.
The team strengthened its grip on a potential Champions League berth next season by trouncing visitor Valenia 4-1 at the Madrigal stadium. First-half goals from Ikechukwu Uche and Hernan Perez were followed by a pair of strikes from Giovanni Dos Santos.
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