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CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF OPPOSING TEAM AND OF STADIUM - Atletico de Madrid's Radamel Falcao from Colombia, left, celebrates his goal with Diego Costa from Brazil, right, during a Spanish La Liga soccer match against Deportivo la Coruna at Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki) *** Local Caption *** CORRECTION Spain Soccer La Liga.JPEG-07406.jpg
CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF OPPOSING TEAM AND OF STADIUM - Atletico de Madrid's Radamel Falcao from Colombia, left, celebrates his goal with Diego Costa from Brazil, right, during a Spanish La Liga soccer match against Deportivo la Coruna at Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki) *** Local Caption *** CORRECTION Spain Soccer La Liga.JPEG-07406.jpg

Atletico Madrid looking to challenge Barcelona supremacy

Spain's two leading goal scorers go head-to-head at Camp Nou as Lionel Messi's leaders Barcelona welcome Radamel Falcao's second-placed Atletico Madrid.

Spain's two leading goal scorers go head-to-head tonight at Camp Nou as giants from Barcelona and Madrid clash. It is not Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo who are visiting though. Madrid may be the most successful team in the world, they are not even top dogs in their own town at present.

Barcelona are league leaders with Lionel Messi established as the best player on the planet, in part because his former coach Pep Guardiola built his brilliant Barca side around him. But Guardiola considers another striker to be better in the box, Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao.

"The world's best penalty-box player," is how Guardiola describes the Colombian, who became the first player to finish top scorer in consecutive Europa Leagues as he helped Porto and then his current club triumph. He also scored a first half hat-trick as Atletico demolished Chelsea in August's European Super Cup.

With 12 wins from 15 games, Atletico are enjoying their best ever start to a league season. Barcelona have done even better, making the best ever start in Spanish history and sit six points ahead of second-place Atletico, who are five ahead of Real Madrid.

Atletico's undisputed star is Falcao, the second top scorer in the Primera Liga. With 16 goals from 14 league matches, Falcao has scored 45.7 per cent of his side's goals. With 23 goals from 15 games, Messi has scored 46 per cent of Barca's.

Falcao has played in Spain for a season and a half, scoring 55 goals in 65 games for Atletico. He is their record 40 million (Dh193.3m) signing, following in a line of glorious goal-scoring imports at the Calderon: Paulo Futre, Christian Vieri, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Sergio Aguero, and Diego Forlan.

He is also expected to be their record sale at the end of the season if his 60m buyout clause is met, yet the Rojiblancos aim to finish in the top three and reward him with a massive new contract paid for by the imminent millions that come with Uefa Champions League qualification.

Just as Messi flourished under Guardiola, so the Colombian has a perfect symbiosis with his coach Diego Simeone. Simeone, who was appointed less than a year ago, is Argentine. Falcao has lived and played in Argentina and the pair get on well.

Barca won the corresponding fixture 5-0 last season thanks to a Messi hat-trick and while they are favourites to continue their unrivalled start, they are up against a far stronger side than 12 months ago.

Falcao did not shine when Atleti were defeated by their neighbours in a dire Bernabeu derby two weeks ago, but he scored five in a 6-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna last week, putting him three goals ahead of Ronaldo. He had just five shots in the whole game, all of them resulting in a goal as he became the first player in Spain to score five in a decade, the first Atletico player in history. Three of the goals came in seven minutes.

Falcao, nicknamed the "Tiger" for his predatory instincts, benefits from a side which plays direct balls to him, either from deep, crosses or from midfielder Arda Turan, but he is unlikely to get the same service against a Barca side who dominate possession.

Atletico last won the league in 1995/96, beating Barcelona home and away en-route to a domestic league and cup double. The Catalans have dominated since, as they have against most clubs, but they will be very wary of this Atletico side and their tiger.

sports@thenational.ae

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