Madrid (AFP) – Fernando Torres believes Atletico Madrid travel to Barcelona on Wednesday at just the right time after emphatically bouncing back with three wins over the past week.
The showdown is the first major clash of the La Liga season, but despite their free-scoring form, both sides face the prospect of being cut adrift from league leaders Real Madrid even at this early stage.
“It’s a good time to visit Barcelona,” Torres said after netting twice in Atletico’s 5-0 thrashing of Sporting Gijon on Saturday.
“It seems like they are playing as we have become accustomed to. They are the most difficult opponent we have faced in the last few years without a doubt and we know how difficult it will be.
“But when you are winning and playing well it always gives you that little more confidence.”
Atletico scored 10 times and kept three clean sheets in seeing off Celta Vigo, PSV Eindhoven and Sporting in eight days.
However, they already trail city rivals Real by four points after disappointing draws against Alaves and Leganes to open the campaign.
“We just needed to find the goals because we have been consistent in the way we have played despite the two draws in the first two games,” added Torres.
“The team is confident and now we have the toughest game we have had until now.”
Despite dumping Barca out of the Champions League twice in the past three years, Atletico haven’t won at the Camp Nou since Torres scored twice in a 3-1 victory during his first stint at the club in 2006.
Barca also hit five at the weekend against newly promoted Leganes to back up their 7-0 hammering of Celtic in the Champions League with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar scoring 10 times in their first two starts of the season together up front.
However, a shock home defeat to Alaves earlier this month leaves Luis Enrique’s men three points behind Real in the early running for the title race.
Both sides will make changes having rotated at the weekend.
Enrique will recall Sergi Roberto and Sergio Busquets with the only doubt for the hosts whether Samuel Umtiti or Javier Mascherano partners Gerard Pique at the heart of the defence.
The rested Gabi and Juanfran are expected to return for Atletico in place of Nicolas Gaitan and Sime Vrsaljko.
– Ronaldo, Bale return –
Real can extend their lead at the top before Barca and Atletico kick off and set a La Liga record with a 17th straight win at home to Villarreal earlier on Wednesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale missed Sunday’s 2-0 win at Espanyol due to illness and injury respectively. However, both returned to training on Monday and are expected to start.
Victory at the weekend saw Real set a new club record for consecutive league wins and match the 16 straight wins Barcelona managed under Pep Guardiola in 2010/11.
Villarreal, though, are unbeaten in the league this season as back-to-back wins have taken the Yellow Submarine up to sixth after a disrupted pre-season due to the sacking of coach Marcelino days before the campaign got under way.
Sevilla can move up to second on Tuesday if they continue their dominance of the Seville derby over Real Betis.
The Europa League holders haven’t lost in the league to Betis in four years and are strong favourites for one of Spain’s most passionate encounters.
At the bottom of the table Valencia are looking to pick up their first points of the season when Alaves visit the Mestalla on Thursday with Valencia boss Pako Ayestaran’s job on the line.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Malaga v Eibar (1800) Sevilla v Real Betis (2000)
Real Madrid v Villarreal, Celta Vigo v Sporting Gijon (both 1800), Barcelona v Atletico Madrid, Granada v Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad v Las Palmas (all 2000)
Deportivo la Coruna v Leganes, Osasuna v Espanyol (1800), Valencia v Alaves (2000)
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