Entering the 2020-21 La Liga season it was unclear exactly which team would cement itself as the favorite to win the crown. You had Real Madrid, the reigning champs, you couldn't count out a Lionel Messi-led Barcelona, and then there was Atletico Madrid. Atleti were the third team but it felt like if Barcelona and Real dipped a bit in form, the chance would be there for Diego Simeone to guide Los Colchoneros to their second La Liga title under him.
And as the calendar turned to March, there they were sitting in first place with a five point advantage despite winning just two of their last five entering Sunday's big Madrid derby with Real Madrid.
But aside from a recent rough patch in form, Atleti have been quite spectacular in the league. They have only lost twice in 24 games, they have conceded just 16 goals, and their 47 goals are the second most in the league. The key difference from last season to this season has been adding veteran striker Luis Suarez, who at 34 years of age has 16 goals in 21 games for his new club in league play. Though he has gone four games without a goal, he had nine goals in his previous seven games. It didn't take him long to fit in after arriving from Barcelona.
An exit from Barcelona was expected, but the move to Atleti last summer was still surprising in itself, reminiscent of Atleti getting David Villa from Barca in 2013 and then winning the league on the last day of the season at the Camp Nou. They are hoping for a repeat of that this season, and Suarez is ready. But first, he is looking for revenge against Los Blancos, an opponent he is very familiar with after playing all those Clasicos and one that stands in the way of their domestic dreams.
"Playing against Real Madrid is something special," Suarez said in an interview with LaLiga World. "You really want to play in these games and show your ability. Everyone's watching and waiting to see what you can do.
"In our case, we've got the added incentive of trying on avenge our defeat earlier in the season."
Before a recent loss to Levante, Atleti had only suffered that one league defeat to Real Madrid, a 2-0 result on Dec. 12. But despite that hiccup, Atleti have continued their form and got back to their winning ways by beating Villarreal last weekend. Sunday's clash will have huge implications in the title race, because a Real Madrid win will pull them within two points of Atleti at the top of the table.
"We want to show why we're top of the league," said Suarez, who has the second most goals in the league, three behind Messi.
"This is a very ambitious team. We want to go a long way. We want to triumph and reach our objective. No one can take that ambition away from us. It's part of our makeup along with our competitive spirit.
"From now on until a few games before the end, we'll see exactly how far we can go."
A win won't cement them as champions, and a loss won't mean the title will slip away, and there will still be 39 points up for grabs in their final 13 games. But consistency for this team, always rebounding from set backs and surprising results is just part of who they are, and it is part of who they are.
Suarez's recent goal drought isn't anything of grave concern for the veteran, because the chances have been there. He has 14 shots in those four games, six of which have gone on frame. He's hoping it is only a matter of time before he bags one and potentially opens the flood gates, as we have seen time and time against this season. In the 2020-21 campaign, his four-goal league drought is twice as long as any other drought. Only twice has he gone two games without scoring in the league before his recent slump, so the added eager and ambition to return to his scoring ways could mean bad news for a banged up Real Madrid backline.
For Atleti, there is added pressure with each new match as they are viewed as the front runners, with Suarez as the potential star. But for the former Nacional man, his goal is more about helping a proud club return to the summit of Spanish soccer, feeling deserving of such an honor.
"Being able to help a team like Atletico Madrid, who haven't won any titles for a while, win something big is obviously one of my main objectives," Suarez said.
"We've got to stay on the right track until we reach our objective."
You can watch Sunday's derby at 10:15 a.m. ET on fuboTV (Try for free).