By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Diego Simeone won't talk about it, but everybody else is. The Argentine coach won't be drawn on his side's chances of winning La Liga, sticking to his 'one game at a time' rhetoric. But a win over Barcelona on Saturday will see los Rojiblancos ahead at the competition's halfway stage. So can they go all the way?
For both Barca and Atletico, Saturday's game represents an acid test. Gerardo Martino's men have yet to be truly tested by a top team in 2013-14 and failed to overcome Atleti in both legs of the Spanish Supercopa earlier this term (which they won on away goals). On the other hand, while Simeone's side have proved themselves against quality rivals in Europe and defeated Real Madrid twice at the Santiago Bernabeu over the last 10 months, they still haven't managed to beat Barcelona.
"It's a terrific match in every respect and both teams are bang on form. It will be a great game," former Atletico and Barca striker Quique Estabaranz told Goal.
Atleti's superb season in La Liga
|2||Simeone's side have won all but two of their Liga fixtures this term, with one loss and one draw|
|9||Los Rojiblancos have won all nine of their home matches in La Liga so far|
|11||Atleti boast the Primera Division's best defence, with just 11 league goals conceded in 2013-14|
|19||Diego Costa has netted an amazing 19 goals in just 17 league matches|
|49||One match short of the halfway stage, Atletico already have an incredible 49 points - the same as Barcelona|
"The title race will go all the way," he said. "Atletico are in a great position, they have a stronger squad this year and Diego Costa is the best striker around at the moment.
"With perseverance, continuity and motivation, Simeone has taken this team to new levels, while the commitment of each one of the players has been total."
Simeone himself has admitted that individually, Barca are the superior side. "They are better than us on an individual level, but we try to close the gap by putting faith in a group effort and by being compact," the Argentine said on Friday.
"The team spirit is excellent and Simeone has got the players playing for each other," Estabaranz added. "They never ever give up and 'El Cholo' has had another year to really imprint his ideas on this team - and the players are responding more and more."
For Barca, Lionel Messi is in contention for a start after returning from injury with two goals in the 4-0 win over Getafe in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday and Simeone admitted on Friday that he expected his compatriot to play.
"Messi is Barca's flagship footballer and his return will be a big boost for them," Estabaranz explained. "But Atletico are a strong side, particularly at home, they will make it difficult for the Catalans and Diego Costa will be a huge threat as well."
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So can Atleti go all the way?
"Beating Barcelona would be a great step, but it's not just about Saturday's game. Atleti are there at the halfway stage and look strong mentally and physically, so why not?"
Even though he never played a competitive first-team game for the club, Estabaranz grew up as an Atletico fan and later returned to the club as a youth-team coach. "I would be very happy if they won the title," he said. "I always say that Atletico were like a second mother to me!"
And if the Rojiblancos can go all the way to the title, Simeone will be seen as something of a second father for legions of Atleti fans. La Liga, boring? Not if you're a Colchonero...
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