Football: Title at stake for La Liga's top 2

Barcelona's former Atletico Madrid player Arda Turan (centre) joking with team-mates during training yesterday. He will be taking on Atletico for the first time since making the switch following a four-year spell at the Vicente Calderon.
Barcelona's former Atletico Madrid player Arda Turan (centre) joking with team-mates during training yesterday. He will be taking on Atletico for the first time since making the switch following a four-year spell at the Vicente Calderon.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Barca and Atletico lead La Liga on 48pts but Barca have a game in hand, Real trail by 4pts

MADRID • First meets second as Barcelona host Atletico Madrid today looking to tighten their grip on the La Liga title race.

The sides are level on 48 points at the top of the table, but Barca have a game in hand on Atletico and can take a huge step towards a fifth title in seven years with an eighth consecutive win in all competitions.

Indeed, Luis Enrique's men remain on course for a repeat of the treble of La Liga, Champions League and King's Cup they won last season after progressing to the semi-finals of the King's Cup with a 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in midweek.

But the European champions have been far from their best in the past week as they were outplayed by Malaga and Bilbao in the first half before being salvaged by individual moments of magic after the break.

"We are aware of the errors we need to correct," said Luis Suarez after taking his goal-tally for the season to 30 with the equaliser against Bilbao.

However, Atletico are also not in great form as they return to the scene where they won the title in the 2013-14 season.

Diego Simeone's men were dumped out of the King's Cup in midweek by Celta Vigo as they conceded three goals for the first time since Barca won by the same 3-2 scoreline at the same stage of the competition exactly a year ago.

Yet, it is at the other end of the field that Atletico have tended to have problems this season - scoring just 30 goals in their 21 La Liga games so far.

"It is clear that the more efficient teams in front of goal win games and our No. 1 aim now is to improve this," Atletico midfielder Gabi Fernandez told reporters.

"It is a blow to have been knocked out of the Cup as our aim is to battle for all the trophies and hopefully this will not affect us for the league game now with Barcelona."

The visitors are also likely to be confronted with a familiar face as Arda Turan takes on Atletico for the first time since making the switch to the Nou Camp following a four-year spell at the Vicente Calderon.

"I have had this match in mind for some time," the Turkish midfielder told Barca's website.

"You always have to respect the opponent and Atletico are no different in that aspect. Despite changing a lot of players, they have maintained the same style."

Both sides will be close to full strength with Barca set to recall Turan, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta after they were rested in midweek, but Jordi Alba remains a doubt with a hamstring injury.

Atletico are without long-term injury absentee Tiago and Fernando Torres, while Angel Correa is suspended.

Real Madrid trail the leaders by four points - having also played a game more than Barca - but have a golden opportunity to make ground on one or both of their title rivals when they host Espanyol tomorrow.

Zinedine Zidane suffered his first setback in charge of Los Blancos in a 1-1 draw at Real Betis last weekend and will be looking to return to winning ways.

Gareth Bale is expected to miss out once again for Real despite stepping up his recovery from a calf strain, so James Rodriguez is expected to deputise for the Welshman.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BARCELONA V ATLETICO MADRID

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Title at stake for top 2'. Print Edition | Subscribe