MADRID (AP) — Atletico Madrid's impressive Spanish league campaign finally gets the ultimate test as it comes up against co-leader Barcelona, which has Lionel Messi back from injury.
Messi marked his return from a two-month layoff with a pair of goals in Barcelona's 4-0 Copa del Rey victory over Getafe on Wednesday. Atletico, meanwhile, drew 1-1 at Valencia in the midweek domestic cup competition that has been a distraction with Saturday's league clash looming.
Barcelona and Atletico both have 49 points from 18 games, while Real Madrid is third with 44 points.
Here are five things to know about the Spanish league this weekend:
Atletico would show once and for all that it's a legitimate title contender if it emerges from Saturday's match at the Vicente Calderon Stadium alone in first, a spot the team has not occupied at this point of the season since it last won the championship in 1996.
"Winning on Saturday will be insignificant if we don't meet our objectives over the season," Atletico midfielder Koke said. "We've got the entire second half of the season to go even though we all realize that up until now this is the most important game of the season."
Atletico defender Juanfran Torres is available after having a booking revoked, avoiding a ban.
Atletico will have to prepare for Messi, who seems to be back to his normal self after a torn left hamstring, scoring one of his goals from a typical run through the opponent's defense.
"What I wanted was to get back on the field and to play. I was very motivated to return," Messi said. "It was hard keeping my spirits up over these months but determination was always there."
Neymar was absent because of a stomach bug but the Brazil striker should return against Atletico. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes could also be back.
"The team showed how good it was and that nobody is untouchable," Messi said. "This is a squad that responds to its demands."
Both Atletico and Barcelona owe their league runs in part to Argentine coaching.