Madrid derby: Title challenge and bragging rights at stake

Madrid rivals Real and Atletico will face off this weekend, in what is set to be another fiery city derby in the Spanish capital.

Atletico Madrid could jump above its city rival with a win this weekend, after reducing a seven-point gap to two over the last fortnight.   -  Getty Images

Real Madrid has fallen into a slump at a bad time.  The Champions League winner is suddenly struggling following a strong start to the season despite Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. And up next is Atletico Madrid, which has hit its stride after a poor early run.

Atletico visits the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Saturday with a chance to overcome Real Madrid and move to the top of the league standings for the first time this season.

Real Madrid and Barcelona lead with 13 points each, two more than Atletico after six matches. Barcelona, coming off two straight setbacks, hosts Athletic Bilbao earlier Saturday.

Atletico already got the best of Real Madrid the first time the teams met this season. The Europa League champion was a 4-2 winner in extra time in the UEFA Super Cup final in August.

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"Things are always changing in soccer," Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui said Friday.

"We have to move on as quickly as possible because we have a great challenge ahead in the derby against Atletico. We can't get too carried away with the victories nor get too concerned with the losses."

Atletico hasn't lost in five league games at the Bernabeu, winning three and drawing the last two.

"It will be a very difficult match, like every match against Real Madrid. We can't get caught up with what happened in the past," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said.

Atletico's form

Atletico's season began with high expectations after winning the Europa League and finishing second in the league. But after defeating Real Madrid, Atletico fell in the league standings after winning only one of its first four matches.

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The team now has won three in a row in all competitions, including 2-1 at Monaco in its first Champions League game. In the league, Atletico defeated Getafe 2-0 and Huesca 3-0.

Madrid's problems

There were many doubts about Real Madrid's potential after it lost Ronaldo and coach Zinedine Zidane in the offseason, but the team excelled after the opening loss to Atletico, winning five of its first six games. The lone setback was a league draw at Athletic Bilbao.

Madrid didn't play well in its last two games, though, struggling in a narrow 1-0 win over Espanyol at home on Saturday and being totally outplayed by Sevilla in a demoralizing 3-0 away loss on Wednesday.

Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema had been thriving in Ronaldo's absence, combining to score most of the team's goals, but both have played below expectations recently. Benzema hasn't scored in the team's last four matches, while Bale found the net only once in that period.

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The defense also hasn't played its best. Madrid hadn't conceded more than a goal since the loss against Atletico in the UEFA Super Cup. But veteran left back Marcelo looked as frail as ever against Sevilla, unable to keep up with the opposition's speedy forwards and being linked to all three goals conceded.

Injury woes

Marcelo is one of the top players set to miss Saturday's derby because of injury. The Brazilian defender couldn't finish the game against Sevilla because of a muscle problem and is unlikely to recover in time for Saturday's match.

The other significant absence for Lopetegui will be midfielder Isco, who had appendicitis surgery this week and is expected to be sidelined for about a month.

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