By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA, April 24 (Reuters) - Atletico Madrid must put their Champions League ambitions to one side when they look to maintain their surprise La Liga title surge in a tough trip to Valencia on Sunday.
They are on the verge of winning their first league title for 18 years and breaking the stranglehold of the country's superpowers, Barcelona and Real Madrid.
After a 0-0 draw against Chelsea in the semi-final first leg on Tuesday, a victory or a score draw in London would assure Atletico of a place in their first European Cup final for 40 years.
Atletico have been a model of consistency this season under coach Diego Simeone's "match by match" strategy and their progress in three competitions, having also reached the King's Cup semi-finals, is all the more remarkable considering their limited squad.
Tired legs will be the main concern for Simeone as they prepare for the difficult visit to Valencia's Mestalla and they cannot afford to rest players.
"We are in good spirits and motivated to wear the Atletico Madrid shirt. We are in privileged position," Simeone told a news conference.
"We are only thinking about Valencia now and then we will consider next Wednesday (against Chelsea)."
Atletico lead the way in La Liga with 85 points, four more than Barcelona and six ahead of Real Madrid, who do have a game in hand.
However, a slip-up against Valencia would be costly especially as they still have to face Barcelona away on the final day of the season.
Real, meanwhile, also have strong Champions League ambitions after beating Bayern Munich 1-0 in the first leg of their semi-final at the Bernabeu.
They have an easier-looking task at home to Osasuna on Saturday and should also be fresher having benefited from a break last weekend as their game with Valladolid was postponed following their King's Cup win.
With Barcelona out of Europe and off the pace in La Liga, attention has turned to rebuilding for next season, although as they prepare to travel to Villarreal on Sunday they still have an outside chance of winning the title.
A major blow for the Catalan side in the title race came in their last away game against Granada where coach Gerardo Martino appeared unable to motivate his players who lacked the necessary intensity and went down 1-0.
The result meant that winning the championship was no longer in their hands.
Talk turned to whether Martino will decide to stay in the job and the players have been criticised for a lack of effort, including suggestions that Lionel Messi has been holding himself back for the World Cup.
"There is still the league and although it is difficult we are a club where it would not be the first time that we could win the league on the final day of the season. We are confident. Why not?" defender Gerard Pique told reporters.
"We have an exciting situation ahead. I am confident in the people running the club and the players because we have a squad which is mentally very strong.
"Messi is the number one. He is a fundamental part of the team and it is thanks to him we have won what we have. The team has contributed but we are talking about the best player ever and to criticise him is something that doesn't make sense to me, I can't understand it." (Editing by Ed Osmond)
- Sports & Recreation
- Atletico Madrid
- Real Madrid
- Diego Simeone
- La Liga