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Atletico-Barca first big clash of 2014

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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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No matter how hard they try, neither Barcelona nor Atletico Madrid can avoid the fact their top of clash at the Estadio Vicente Calderon will likely go a long way to deciding this season’s Primera Division (live, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET) title.

Barca and Atletico come into the game as joint leaders, both with a phenomenal 49 points from 18 games. So Saturday’s victor will be Spain’s "winter champion" or table-topper at the season’s midway point, after playing each of the other teams once. The winner of that [unofficial] title has subsequently won the real La Liga crown in 17 of the last 22 seasons, but much admired Atletico midfielder Koke still played down its significance earlier this week.

“[Winter champion] is just a nice detail, but what counts is how you finish the season,” Koke said. “It makes no difference if we win on Saturday and then fade away. The whole second half is still to come. But we know it is the most important game of the season so far.”

Barca was winter champion last year, and strode away over the second half of the campaign to take the title. Its playmaker Xavi Hernandez admitted that a victory on Saturday could set it up for something similar again.

“The game against Atletico is vital for the outcome of the league,” Xavi said. “It might not decide things, but a win would lay down a marker. We are coming into the game with some good form. We will try and take charge.”

Xavi was not wrong when suggesting Barca is the form team coming into the game. Gerardo Martino’s side suffered shock back-to-back defeats in early December, but has won all seven games since -- scoring 28 goals and conceding just five. The first six of those wins were achieved without talismanic forward Lionel Messi, but his absence was not so sorely missed. Pedro Rodriguez scored a hat trick in Barca’s last game of 2013. Alexis Sanchez matched that feat in its first outing of 2014, at home to Elche. Cesc Fabregas has four goals across his last three appearances. Neymar has six in his last four.

And then Messi returned, from two months out injured, with a double strike on Wednesday against Getafe in Copa del Rey.

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“I was really looking forward to coming back after such a long time off the pitch,” Messi said afterwards. “I tested myself in every way in training, but out on the pitch everything is different. I felt good physically, no pain, the injury is cured.”

Messi clearly wants to face Atletico, knowing the importance of the game. But Martino may still keep him on the bench along with Neymar, who had a stomach bug this week. In defense the boss also has calls to make -- whether to stick with in-form youngsters Martin Montoya and Marc Bartra, or bring back more experienced alternatives Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano.

Colchoneros coach Diego Simeone has fewer selection calls to make, but nevertheless will surely have a tactical plan in mind. Right back Juanfran Torres was freed from suspension to play by La Liga’s authorities this week, and fellow defender Diego Godin looks set to overcome a thigh problem to start. This leaves a poser up front -- whether to replace out-of-sorts former Barca forward David Villa [who has just three goals in his last ten games] with in-form Raul Garcia, who has four in five, and netted again in Tuesday’s 1-1 Copa del Rey draw at Valencia.

Garcia would bring more physicality and energy to an Atletico side which has come back from the holidays a little sluggish. It would also mean similar tactics to August’s Supercopa clash between the sides, during which Barca were shut down completely for long periods, as the Catalan outfit just squeaked the trophy on away goals.

La Liga's two top teams will go head-to-head at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday (Image: WhoScored.com).

In those games Simeone picked Diego Costa in midfield -- but he must play up front this time. Costa has 19 goals in first 18 La Liga games this season -- and important ones too, including the winner at Real Madrid in September.

Asked this week whether an Atletico win over the other of Spain’s traditional powers would mean La Liga has a new head honcho, Costa mixed confidence with caution.

“It is not about a changing of the guard,” he said. “It would be very nice to beat Barcelona and be leaders. But there will still be a long way to go. We just go one game at a time.”

The players -- on both sides -- can try and play it down if they like, but everyone knows this is the big one.

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