Atlético welcome revamped Espanyol to the Vicente Calderón on Sunday, with kick-off set for 19:00 CET.
Because of Valencia’s 2-2 draw in Zaragoza on Saturday, a victory over los Periquitos would expand the gap between los Rojiblancos and the fifth place spot to a whopping 15 points.
That would be the new margin needed to bump Atleti out of the Champions League zone in the table.
Diego Simeone’s men come into this encounter following elimination from the Europa League despite a valiant effort in Moscow on Thursday.
A late goal by Radamel Falcao that gave Atleti a 1-0 win was not enough to overcome the 2-0 deficit from the first leg of their match-up with Rubin Kazan.
‘El Tigre’ is quickly regaining his goalscoring form after hitting a bit of a speed bump as he recovered from a hamstring injury and now has 25 goals in all competitions this season.
The Colombian has found the back of the net in consecutive games and in-form strike partner Diego Costa, who missed the midweek trip to Russia through suspension, will likely be deployed up front along with him from the start on Sunday.
The deadly pair (quite possibly literally when it comes to the ‘Beast of the Manzanares’ Costa) each bagged a goal in last weekend’s 3-0 shutout away at Valladolid.
At Saturday’s pre-game press conference, Simeone did not show any signs of disappointment with his squad for having been dispatched from UEFA competition.
“The team showed their mettle and were competitive, and at this stage in the season, it’s helpful to us that the boys went to Moscow showing that,” ‘El Cholo’ said.
The Argentine dismissed claims about Atleti not taking the Europa League seriously in the return fixture against Rubin given that the club left behind a host of regular starters.
“We thought we could go to Russia with the players we took and we showed we played good enough to win, and even though we couldn’t qualify to the next round, we had a chance to with the players that went,” he said.
“Another group of players stayed behind training and we head into this match with the utmost attention and without thinking of anything else because we are in a day-to-day mindset and we respect La Liga very much.”
He continued: “Normally, throughout the world, a football fan looks to the league first and then to the rest of the stuff.
“The league is the heart of the fans.”
Cholo submitted a squad list composed of the same 18 of his men that travelled to Valladolid, leaving off the same two guys that stayed behind in Madrid: Domingo Cisma and Jorge Pulido.
Espanyol have only lost one game in their last 11, which just happens to be the period in which Javier Aguirre has commanded the squad after having taken over for the ousted Mauricio Pochettino at the end of November.
The Mexican former Atleti coach has remarkably catapulted the Barcelona-based outfit from 20th to 12th place since taking charge.
The Blue and Whites are riding a three-game win streak, with their latest triumph a 1-0 home shutout of Betis last Sunday. A fortnight ago, they pounded Athletic 4-0 at San Mamés, so they will not be short of confidence when they enter through the gates of Cholo Castle–site of 13 straight victories and seven consecutive clean sheets in La Liga by the home team.
Defensive midfielder Raúl Baena is out for Espanyol through injury, while Ghanaian midfielder Wakaso was left off Aguirre’s match selection for disciplinary reasons after arriving two days late from the African Cup of Nations.
Atlético defeated Espanyol 1-0 at the Cornellà-El Prat back in September without Falcao, who did not make the trip to Barcelona for that bout.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Asenjo, Courtois
Defenders: Godín, Filipe Luís, Cata Díaz, Juanfran, Insúa, Miranda
Midfielders: Mario, Tiago, Koke, Raúl García, Arda, Cebolla, Gabi
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Costa
Espanyol match selection:
Goalkeepers: Cristian Álvarez, Casilla
Defenders: Raúl Rodríguez, Forlín, Héctor Moreno, Capdevila, Colotto, Víctor Álvarez
Midfielders: Víctor Sánchez, Verdú, Javi López, Petrov, Simao, C. Gómez, Christian
Forwards: Stuani, Sergio García, Longo
Referee: Carlos Clos Gómez