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Why Atletico Madrid look set to challenge again in La Liga

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Naturally, Real Madrid and Barcelona have hogged the spotlight in La Liga this term. The struggles of Rafael Benitez, the form of Neymar, the erratic play of Cristiano Ronaldo and an emphatic 4-0 win for Barca over their great rivals have been prominent in the Spanish press during the early stages of the campaign.

The influx of stories surfacing from the Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu have eclipsed almost everything else in the top flight, including the steady, understated progress made by Atletico Madrid.

SEE MORE: You must-knows about La Liga at the one-third mark.

Casual followers of La Liga may be surprised to hear that Diego Simeone’s side, crowned champions in 2013-14 under remarkable circumstances, trail the Blaugrana by a meager two points as we head towards the winter break and are two points clear of their city rivals in third. Atletico could easily find themselves top of the pile come 2016, too. After this weekend’s round of La Liga fixtures, Barcelona jet off to Japan to fill their obligatory duties as European champions in the Club World Cup. Simeone’s men seem well placed to capitalize.

There were few early signs that Atletico were ready to mount a charge of such significance. They lost their effervescent attacking midfielder Arda Turan to Barcelona in the summer, while Mario Mandzukic, Mario Suarez and Raul Garcia also departed. The big names recruited, including previously prolific forward Jackson Martinez, didn’t hit the ground running.

Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Luciano Vietto were hit and miss, despite their obvious quality. Going forward, Atleti were striving for incision. With Angel Correa and Oliver Torres also seeking to play more significant roles, the manager, so used to working with a small squad, had a surplus of options. He didn’t seem totally confident with it.

So after some efforts to be more enterprising in their play, including a variety of attacking combinations, Simeone has recently reverted to the kind of principles which saw Atletico seize their surprise title. And once again, it’s working wonders.

SEE MORE: Real Madrid’s turnaround will start when Perez’s new Galatico era is stopped.

The disappointing Martinez, the man many expected to become this team’s target man in the wake of Mandzukic’s sale, has been absent with injury, prompting the manager to utilize a more dynamic attack, with Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann dovetailing superbly. It’s allowed Atletico to quickly convert defense into attack.

In midfield, Koke is also becoming more accustomed with increased responsibility in the middle of the park, while Gabi has upped his standards from November onwards. An injury to Tiago is an undeniable blow, yet in Saul Niguez, Atleti have a destructive midfielder who seems primed to take his chance in the starting XI.

But it’s the defensive side of this team which has helped Atletico move ominously up the table, sparking vivid memories of their glorious campaign a couple of years ago. With the excellent Filipe Luis back and flanking the left side of the defense, Diego Godin looks back to his imposing best in the left-center berth. Alongside him, young Jose Maria Gimenez is getting better and better, while Juanfran remains unerringly consistent.

The result of these parts blossoming has been a defense which has looked almost impregnable at times, conceding a meager six goals in their 14 La Liga matches. Jan Oblak, a tremendous young goalkeeper, has also played his part, but the watertight backline, shielded by an industrious midfield, has meant the Slovenian has been pretty inactive.

SEE MORE: From Xavi to MSN: The numbers behind Luis Enrique’s Barcelona makeover.

Of course, clean sheets mean points are inevitably gained. This was the foundation for their title a couple of years ago, with the brilliance of Diego Costa helping Atletico smuggle points from tight contests. Griezmann, who has been in supreme form, may not share the same stylistic principles as the Chelsea man, but he’s assumed this talismanic role with distinction.

Now it seems as though we have a three-horse race for the title in Spain’s top fight once again. Granted, Atletico remain the third favorites overall, but should they establish themselves as league leaders heading into the winter break, plenty will begin to take notice, including the established duo of juggernauts.

They will need some luck with injuries, especially with Godin, Gabi and Griezmann almost irreplaceable in this side, but there is strength in depth for Simeone to call upon. Indeed, the likes of Vietto, Martinez, Torres, Correa and Ferreira Carrasco should be better positioned to make positive impressions in 2016.

But after tinkering with the idea of being more expansive, Simeone seems at ease with the fact that his teams play at their best in a more fundamental fashion. Atletico thrive when playing an intense, direct and cohesive brand of soccer, that much has been evident given their recent triumphs. Doing so again, they are well in with a shout of winning a second title in three seasons.

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