Atletico a hurdle in Real's Barca pursuit

Bale still out, Benzema and Rodriguez may start but leaders poised to extend their run

MADRID • Cristiano Ronaldo insists Real Madrid can still catch La Liga leaders Barcelona if they can overcome their hoodoo against local rivals Atletico Madrid today.

Real trail Atletico by a point and are nine adrift of Barca with just 13 games remaining, but can move up to second place if they beat Diego Simeone's men for the first time in six league games.

"It is a game we need to win," Ronaldo told Real's website. "It is an important game at home, in front of our fans and against a very strong team that defend well.

"We know that (winning) La Liga will be difficult, but we need to fight until the end. Football is a box full of surprises and anything can happen."

Real are expected to be without Gareth Bale, as the calf injury that was initially expected to keep the Welsh star out for three weeks last month drags on.

Karim Benzema is likely to return, having missed the 1-1 draw at Malaga last weekend, while James Rodriguez could start after being left on the bench by manager Zinedine Zidane at La Rosaleda.

Zidane's record at the Bernabeu since taking over has been impeccable, with four wins and 20 goals from four games, but Atletico's rock-solid defence will pose a much more difficult obstacle.

Simeone's men recorded their 24th clean sheet in 38 games this season in a 0-0 draw at PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League in midweek. However, a lack of goals at the other end of the field has been the major problem for Atletico, with just one in their last three games.

"The goal will come. We need to keep going and, if we have to be patient, I'll be the first to wait," said Simeone.

Stefan Savic misses out through injury, so Jose Maria Gimenez will come into the Atletico defence. Striker Fernando Torres is likely to earn a recall to the starting line-up unless Yannick Carrasco recovers in time from an ankle ligament injury.

Barca can maintain their stranglehold on the title race when Sevilla visit the Camp Nou tomorrow.

Sevilla's charge for a top-four finish has been maintained by their brilliant home form, as they still have not won away in the league all season.

That run seems highly unlikely to change as Barca seek to extend a 33-game unbeaten run in all competitions. However, the last time Barca tasted defeat, it was by Sevilla in October.

"Stats are there to be broken," said Barca's top scorer Luis Suarez. "We are dedicated to playing well and getting good results."

With three La Liga games to come in seven days, Barca manager Luis Enrique is likely to rotate his squad, with the likes of Arda Turan and Sergi Roberto in line to start.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Atletico a hurdle in Real's Barca pursuit'. Print Edition | Subscribe