Can anyone in Spain stop relentless Atletico?

Atletico is renowned for its fearless defence yet this season it has scored more goals per game than any other side as it cements its position at the top of La Liga.

Predictably for a team that has managed to make the old cliche of taking each game as it comes a part of its identity, no-one at Atletico is talking about winning the title.   -  GETTY IMAGES

So often underdog in the title race, Atletico Madrid is being touted as the overwhelming favourite for the Liga crown as it continues on a relentless winning streak while Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to struggle.

Atletico had to dig deep against Real Valladolid on Saturday but eventually earned a 2-0 home win for a remarkable seventh consecutive league victory, leaving Diego Simeone's unbeaten side clear at the top with 26 points out of 30.

It is an unthinkable 12 points clear of Barcelona, while it has a six-point advantage and a game in hand over champion Real Madrid, who it visits next week.

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Real Sociedad is its nearest challengers but the Basques' early promise is starting to fade after two draws and if Atletico win its two games in hand it will move seven points ahead of it.

Atletico's considerable points haul only tells half the story of its success, however.

Atleti is renowned for its fearless defence yet this season it has scored more goals per game than any other side in La Liga.

Its new-found emphasis on attack has not led to a decline at the back though, far from it -- it haskept eight clean sheets and only let in two goals.

It has also pulled off some big results -- from beating Barcelona for the first time in the league in a decade, to taking care of a stubborn Villarreal and hammering Granada 6-1.

REAL IMPROVEMENT

Its run has been all the more impressive as COVID-19 restrictions mean it has not been able to rely on its vociferous home supporters, who have so often pulled them over the line in difficult matches.

Indeed, the ban on fans has allowed Simeone to shake off his reputation as an animated cheerleader and prove himself as a hands-on coach who harnesses real improvement in players.

Marcos Llorente, who scored Atletico's second goal against Valladolid with a burst of power and energy, is a case in point.

He was a mediocre holding midfielder less than a year ago but Simeone has transformed him into an explosive forward who is capable of winning matches on his own.

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The Argentine coach has also successfully turned around midfielder Thomas Lemar, Atletico's record signing in 2018 who had drifted out of the team but has reasserted himself as one of their most dangerous players.

Predictably for a team that has managed to make the old cliche of taking each game as it comes a part of its identity, no-one at Atletico is talking about winning the title.

"We are always looking to the next game, we don't get caught up in what we are doing. In football you live for what happens next week," said Simeone.

But the signs are becoming difficult to ignore.

"The debate about whether Atletico are title candidates or favourites is silly," said radio journalist Paco Gonzalez.

"Right now I they are champions-elect."