Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova says that Atletico Madrid must be taken seriously as contenders for this year's Primera Division title.
While much has been made of Barca's potentially decisive eight-point lead over defending champions Real Madrid, Atletico have been quietly accumulating points below the radar. With Radamel Falcao in red-hot form, they have six wins and a draw from their opening seven games and currently sit joint top of the table alongside the Catalans.
Vilanova, speaking at the Camp Nou on Friday morning ahead of his side's trip to La Coruna to face Deportivo on Saturday, said that Diego Simeone's side had proven they could win trophies and the Argentine coach has a squad capable of sustaining a challenge.
"I have said it many times - nobody can say that either Madrid or Barca will win this league," Vilanova said. "Atletico, Malaga and Valencia have their chances, the championship is still just beginning.
"With Simeone in charge, they have won the Europa League. If they can compete in Europe they can compete in our league. Atletico have a balanced squad, you do not notice when they have injuries, and I am sure they will be up there fighting."
Atletico face Real Sociedad on Sunday evening with only Turkish midfielder Arda Turan absent from Simeone's side with an ankle injury. Internationals Thibaut Courtois, Cristian Rodriguez, Emre and Kader all returned to training as normal on Friday morning.
When asked about a potential Atletico title challenge, Simeone told AS on Thursday that he was just concentrating on keeping his side's feet on the ground.
"I try not to look back or forward, just to go from day to day, that is what works for me," Simeone said. "That makes sure I do not forget that Atletico is a demanding club, which must be competitive."
"So I do not like the word 'relaxed', it disturbs me, it makes me afraid. I want my team to be awake, to know they are playing a big opponent and to keep being competitive, and to keep playing as they have been. That is the objective for Sunday."