Simeone has Atletico on cusp of historic start


BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -Years after the former midfielder helped Atletico Madrid win the Spanish league and Copa del Rey titles in 1996, coach Diego Simeone can guide the club to its best league start with a victory at Valencia on Saturday.

Co-leader Barcelona hosts Celta Vigo also looking to collect its ninth win in 10 matches on Saturday, while Real Madrid plays Real Zaragoza at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Striker Radamel Falcao has fueled Atletico by scoring 10 goals spread through his last seven league appearances - failing to find the net only in the opener.

"(Falcao) is an extraordinary player and everything he is achieving he does so through hard work," Simeone said. "We are lucky to have him. Football is about emotions and he transmits a ton of positive energy."

Even so, Simeone sees his team's success as a collective effort.

Midfielder Raul Garcia and forward Diego Costa were loaned out last season. Both have returned to Atletico and are making an impact, while new signing Cristian Rodriguez has given Simeone an even deeper squad as he seeks to defend the Europa League title and make a run for a top-four league finish and a highly coveted Champions League berth.

"Every game is tough, and the merit of this squad is that now it always competes, no matter who plays, and with the same style," said Simeone, who took over Atletico last year and has quickly turned a shaky team known for falling apart into an intense and physical adversary.

Atletico has won 12 straight matches in all competitions - league, cup and Europa League - and is on a club-record unbeaten run of 23 games dating to April.

But the trip to Mestalla Stadium is the toughest test yet to Atletico's hopes of providing a challenge to Barcelona's and Real Madrid's long-standing dominance of the league. Atletico hasn't won a league game at Valencia since the 2001-02 season.

Valencia, which has finished third behind Barcelona and Madrid for the past three seasons, is in 11th place under new coach Mauricio Pellegrino.

Struggling on the road, Valencia is still strong at home, where it is unbeaten after winning its last three league matches.

"We have to be doubly focused on Falcao," said Victor Ruiz, who pairs up with France international Adil Rami in the center of Valencia's defense. "We have to be ready to help each other out constantly to keep him in check. Perhaps Falcao is not the fastest player, but he is the best scorer there is."

Saturday will see the renewal of the scoring duel between Falcao, Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona forward Lionel Messi after all three sat out their teams' midweek Copa de Rey matches against lower-division opponents. Messi leads the league with 13 goals, two more than Ronaldo and three more than Falcao.

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova made his debut as a player in the first division for Celta in 1992 after coming up through Barcelona's youth academy. Vilanova played 29 games and scored one goal in three seasons for the Galician club.

Celta, which spent the previous five seasons playing in the second division, is 13th after losing all four away games this season.

Madrid is fourth and with little room for error, already eight points adrift of the leaders.

Coach Jose Mourinho will be without suspended midfielder Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao because of injury. The defending champions will get defender Alvaro Arbeloa back for the match against a Zaragoza that is on the rise after three straight wins in league and cup play.

"This isn't the Zaragoza that barely avoided relegation last season," Mourinho said. "We'll have to play well to beat them."

Also on Saturday, third-place Malaga hosts Rayo Vallecano. The Costa del Sol side has the best defense in the league with only five goals allowed and is seven points behind Barcelona and Atletico.

On Sunday, it's: Real Sociedad vs. Espanyol; Deportivo La Coruna vs. Mallorca; Osasuna vs. Real Valladolid; Granada vs. Athletic Bilbao; and Sevilla vs. Levante.

Getafe hosts Real Betis on Monday.

Copyright 2016 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

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