Soccer-Pressure growing on Barca as they host red-hot Atletico


Soccer Football - LaLiga - Rayo Vallecano v FC Barcelona - Campo de Futbol de Vallecas, Madrid, Spain - November 25, 2023 FC Barcelona players pose for a team group photo before the match REUTERS/Isabel Infantes/File Photo

MADRID (Reuters) - Barcelona and Atletico Madrid meet on Sunday in the biggest game of the LaLiga weekend with both teams trailing leaders Real Madrid and Girona and keen to prove they are equipped to stay in the title race.

Atleti and Barca are level on 31 points, four adrift Real and Granada who play on Saturday.

If Real beat lowly Granada and Girona overcome Valencia, they would both watch on with a comfortable seven-point lead as their rivals clash at the Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

Champions Barcelona and Atletico go into the match in very different places.

Atletico have been one of the most impressive teams in European football this season.

Usually known for their reliable defensive system, a trademark of manager Diego Simeone since he took over the club a decade ago and led them to two Champions League finals, Atletico are now impressing with their attacking firepower.

They are the top-scoring team in the European Cup along with Manchester City, both with 15 goals in five games and striker Alvaro Morata is level with Erling Haaland and Manchester United's Rasmus Hojlund as the competition's leading scorers with five goals.

Atletico top the Group E standings and have clinched a last- 16 place with one game left.

Their LaLiga form is also good as they have won eight of their last nine games led by an inspired Antoine Griezmann, who is second in the scoring charts with nine goals behind Real's Jude Bellingham. Atletico also have a game in hand over all their main rivals.

Following their 3-0 Champions League win at Feyenoord on Tuesday, Atletico reached 45 goals in 18 matches in all competitions this season, an average of 2.5 per game.

It is the best scoring numbers Atletico have recorded after 18 games in 11 years under Simeone, better than the 43 they netted in the 2013-14 season when Diego Costa and David Villa led them to the LaLiga title.

They travel to Barcelona on a four-game winning streak in all competitions while the hosts are under pressure from demanding fans not satisfied with the form of Xavi Hernandez's team who have failed to win four of their last eight LaLiga matches.

Each of Barca's 11 points from their last eight LaLiga games were earned thanks to winners or equalisers in the last 15 minutes of the game.

"I have won a pass to have peace of mind until Sunday," Xavi joked after Barca fought back to win 2-1 against Porto on Tuesday and reach the Champions League last 16 for the first time in three years.

"It's a step that gives confidence, morale... I feel satisfied... I am calm... But it is not a liberation like many might suggest, I am not a prisoner," the coach added.

Xavi was joking, but he probably would not need to if his team were in a different position.

They face a very difficult game against in-form Atletico on Sunday. A win would ease the pressure but another disappointment could mean their Champions League qualification is quickly forgotten.

(Reporting by Fernando Kallas, editing by Ed Osmond)

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