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Dec 18, 2006

La Liga: Barca back to face bogey team Atletico

MADRID, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Still licking their wounds from their Club World Cup final defeat, Barcelona return to Spain to face their bogey team Atletico Madrid in their last league game of the year at the Nou Camp on Thursday.

Atletico have a peerless record against Frank Rijkaard's side, winning three and drawing one of the last four matches between the two sides.

They are the only team to have beaten Barcelona in their own stadium as the Catalans have powered their way to their back-to-back league titles, while Atletico striker Fernando Torres has clearly got the measure of the Barca defence.

Torres has never managed to score against city rivals Real Madrid, but he has found the net six times in the last four clashes against Barca.

Last season he bagged a double in Atletico's 3-1 victory at the Nou Camp and scored another in the 2-1 win at the Calderon.

While Barca remain the most attractive side to watch in Spain, Atletico have become experts at winning ugly.

A dour 1-0 win over neighbours Getafe pushed them up into fourth place and their self-belief is beginning to grow.

'If we have managed to get into fourth place playing so badly, the day we start playing well no one, not even Barca, will be able to catch us,' coach Javier Aguirre said after the Getafe match.

'The team needs to keep winning so that it can gain confidence and play better football.'

But Aguirre knows that Atletico have a habit of blowing it as soon as they look to have turned the corner.

Barca will also be extra motivated after their 1-0 defeat to Brazil's Internacional in Yokohama on Sunday.

'It was a huge disappointment, a lost opportunity that doesn't come round too often,' said Barca coach Frank Rijkaard.

'The defeat was a lesson to us because it showed that you can't win things unless you have the right mentality. It is very hard to lose a final but we have to pick ourselves up and carry on.'

Sevilla took advantage of Barca's assignment in Japan to reclaim top spot with a 3-1 win at Recreativo on Sunday, leading striker Frederic Kanoute continuing his great run of form with his 12th goal of the season.

The UEFA Cup holders, who have won all seven of their home league matches this season, will be strong favourites to notch up another triumph when they host Deportivo Coruna who have not won in eight games.

Third-placed Real Madrid, who claimed a gutsy 1-0 win over Espanyol after being reduced to 10 men following the sending off of Fabio Cannavaro, host Recreativo on Wednesday.

Fabio Capello's work ethic has clearly taken root at Real and the team have developed the happy knack of winning when the going gets tough.

'We have shown that this team can triumph in adversity,' said fullback Michel Salgado. 'Leagues are won by teams that know how to roll up their sleeves, work hard and suffer.'