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LA LIGA PREVIEW

MANCHESTER

Downbeat Barça look to shore up top spot

La Liga leaders Barcelona will look to round off a fine week on the field when they visit Champions League-chasing Real Sociedad on Saturday while title challengers Real Madrid and Atletico will also be full of confidence.

Downbeat Barça look to shore up top spot
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a penalty during Tuesday's Champions League match against Manchester City. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP

Despite some more unsavoury headlines surrounding Barça's signing of Brazilian forward Neymar, which saw the club indicted over an alleged tax fraud on Thursday, the mood in Catalonia is positive after they overcame a huge hurdle by beating Manchester City 2-0 away in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

That match continued Gerardo Martino's men's impressive return to form in recent weeks after a shock 3-2 defeat to Valencia at the beginning of the month.

However, midfielder Sergio Busquets has warned against reading too much into his side's upturn in the past few games.

"After the game against Valencia it seemed as if the world had ended and now, three weeks later, it seems as if everything has changed, but it is not like that. We are not now suddenly in our best form, nor were we in our worst before," he said.

The trip to San Sebastian will be Barça's second in 10 days after a 1-1 draw at Anoeta in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final eased them into the final 3-1 on aggregate

Yet, with Barça tied at the top of La Liga with Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid on 60 points, Busquets knows his side cannot afford a similar result this time round.

"Any draw or defeat will penalize us in the league. Real Sociedad have a great team and it will be difficult for us."

Left-back Jordi Alba is a doubt for Barca due to a hamstring injury, but otherwise Martino has a fully-fit squad to choose from and Neymar could be handed his first start since returning from an ankle problem.

Ronaldo still banned for Madrid 

Real Madrid are the first of the title contenders in action this weekend as they host relegation-threatened Elche earlier on Saturday.

Los Blancos have had a rare midweek off as they don't return to Champions League action until Wednesday when they travel to Schalke.

Carlo Ancelotti's side will again be without the services of the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo as he completes his three-game ban so the in-form Jese Rodríguez and Karim Benzema will continue to partner Gareth Bale in attack.

Like Barcelona, Real are still in the running for a potential treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League.

And with his side unbeaten in their last 25 games in all competitions, defender Dani Carvajal acknowledged that the treble is a realistic target for Madrid this season.

"I would give everything to win the treble, but it is not easy to win three titles. We will fight for it and give our all until the end to achieve it," he told the club's website.

"We are in the midst of the months in which you play for everything. Real Madrid always try to win everything and within the squad we feel very strong. I don't want to say that we are favourites, just that we are one of the candidates to win these three titles."

Atletico will be in confident mood after also winning on the road in Europe in midweek as they beat AC Milan 1-0 at the San Siro on Wednesday.

However, Diego Simeone's men face a stern test if they are to maintain pace with their more illustrious rivals when they travel to Osasuna on Sunday.

Osasuna have already taken points from both Barça and Real at home this season. Moreover, five first-team regulars for Atletico, including top scorer Diego Costa, will need to be careful as they are just one booking away from missing next week's Madrid derby against Real.

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FOOTBALL

Thousands of Atletico fans flock to Madrid’s Neptune fountain to cheer league victory

Thousands of Atletico Madrid fans defied the authorities by taking to the streets of the Spanish capital to celebrate on Saturday night after victory over Real Valladolid secured their team an 11th league title.

Thousands of Atletico fans flock to Madrid's Neptune fountain to cheer league victory
Spanish policemen stand guard around Atletico Madrid´s supporters outside the Jose Zorilla stadium in Valladolid. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

As soon as the full-time whistle blew in Valladolid to confirm a 2-1 win, Atleti supporters flocked to the Neptune fountain in the centre of Madrid, in
line with tradition but defying Covid-19 rules regarding the wearing of masks and social distancing.

“I was confident Atletico would win. It was like a final and being against Valladolid, I knew we were going to win,” Federico Gonzalez, 46, and among the crowds, told AFP.

A large police presence surrounded the fountain, with several vans also present to prevent people from approaching the fountain, which had been lit up in Atletico’s red and white colours.

Fans waved flags and scarves while others set off flares as darkness fell, the celebrations going on into the night after Atletico’s second La Liga title in seven years.

“It is a joy. From the beginning of the game I was overcome with nerves because Atleti plays each game in its own way and you just never know”, said Carlota Maestro, 20, who came to the city centre with three friends.

Amid shouts of “Atleti, Atleti” and “Campeones”, the rojiblancos fans danced, jumped and hugged each other. Cars and motorbikes drove by honking
their horns, some with red and white flags poking out of the windows.

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant Atletico’s fans have not been allowed to attend matches this season and their celebrations defied the recommendations of the authorities.

Fans ignored rules on social distancing and many were not wearing masks. “Please, I ask the Atletico fans not to go to Neptune,” wrote the mayor of
Madrid, Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida, himself an Atletico supporter, on Twitter. “I am the first to understand the desire to celebrate but this is not the time.”

“It is a strange celebration, because we have not been able to do it like normal, on the field, surrounded by other fans,” said Pablo Diaz, a 22-year-old fan. “We celebrate it but with a little fear, being careful, and wearing a mask.”

Hundreds of other fans had accompanied the team to Valladolid, where they watched the game on their phones in the car park outside the stadium.

After the match, Atletico’s ran out of the stadium to celebrate with the supporters they had not seen all season.

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