Atletico Madrid can rely on stellar away form at Celta
The next three weeks are going to be pivotal for Atletico Madrid and will tell us much about their La Liga ambitions this season with a number of make-or-break games on the horizon.
Starting with Sunday's trip to Galicia to take on Celta Vigo, Los Rojiblancos will then have to go to Gran Canaria to face Las Palmas, host the dangerous Sevilla before making the trip to Barcelona in what is looking like a six-pointer on Jan. 30.
All that on top of the two games they have played thus far since the turn of the year, plus the return leg of their Copa del Rey last 16 tie against Rayo Vallecano.
Should Diego Simeone's side see off their Madrid neighbours, they will then have two more Copa fixtures shoe-horned in, including a potential quarterfinal second leg sandwiched in between the visit of Sevilla and the trip to Catalonia.
Atleti should have too much for Rayo and thus will play nine times in all competitions in January. Simeone has just welcomed two more central midfielders -- Mattias Kranevitter and Augusto Fernandez -- into the squad and all players, no matter their position, will be crucial over the coming weeks as the brutal schedule takes its toll. The window is open and fans should not rule out more backup coming in.
Up next is the trip to Celta. Eduardo Berizzo's side sit fifth in the table and remain firmly in the hunt for the fourth Champions League spot, albeit they have fallen slightly off the pace, losing their last two league games without scoring.
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Torrential rain over the weekend has seen the tie at Balaidos thrown into doubt, however the club remain confident that it will be all systems go come Sunday.
And why would Celta not be confident in welcoming Los Colchoneros?
Last season goals from Nolito -- who will miss the visit through injury -- and Fabian Orellana sealed an impressive 2-0 win for Berizzo's men. This season they have shown they can cut it against the big boys with a stunning 4-1 hammering of Barcelona in September and a standout performance in their 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid at home in which the scoreline did not reflect the pattern of the game.
Atleti, having lost only one of their last 12 league games, will also be brimming with confidence heading up north. They have picked up 19 points from a possible 27 on offer away from home, more than any other side in the division and their consistency and ability to grind out a win away from home is the reason they can reclaim top spot in La Liga with a win against the Sky Blues.
The bedrock of this season has been, without doubt, the performances put in by each member of the regular back five comprising Jan Oblak, Juanfran, Diego Godin, Jose Maria Gimenez and Filipe Luis. Oblak, in particular, is having a sensational season. The Slovenian stopper, who turned 23 on Thursday, has only shipped eight goals in 19 games, the fewest in any of Europe's top five leagues. It is only because of Samir Handanovic he has as few as six international caps to his name, a problem Oblak will no longer have following his recent retirement.
Atleti is something of a breeding ground for the continent's top stoppers, with David De Gea and Thibaut Courtois -- both widely acknowledged as being among the world's best custodians -- having learned their craft at the Vicente Calderon. Oblak, however, is doing better than either of them, with 11 La Liga clean sheets already to his name.
With the upcoming hectic fixture schedule Atleti will need Oblak to carry on his run of impressive shutouts, while the four defenders in front of him, plus the likes of Gabi, Saul and Koke will all need to pull together, especially with the likes of Fernando Torres and Jackson Martinez misfiring up top.
Right now Atleti are riding the crest of a wave. They are not playing well and still winning, with Simeone possessing the magic touch from the sidelines. In their last three games, the 45-year-old's substitutions have done the trick with is side on the ropes and up against it.
Right now things are just going for the Argentine. At the moment he has the Midas touch, however one day the luck will run out. It always does.
The side need heroes. Antoine Griezmann cannot do it all on his own and needs help. Torres, Martinez and Luciano Vietto have thus far been inadequate assistants. But there is time for that to change. Having said that, ask any Rojiblanco fan and they will tell you they care not one jot about who puts the ball in the back of the net or who plays well and who does not, just as long as the team win and remain in the title hunt and ahead of Real Madrid in the table.
It would, however, be nice if the cavalry did not have to come from the bench for once.
Joseph Walker covers Atletico Madrid for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @Joe_in_espana.