MADRID: Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone insisted Barcelona remain the best team in the world despite their recent struggles ahead of the sides third meeting this month on Sunday (Monday in Manila).
A poor opening first 45 minutes in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final tie cost Atletico dear as wonder goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi put Barca well on their way to a 3-2 aggregate win.
However, since then Barca have been thrashed 4-0 by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and needed a last-minute Messi penalty to see off lowly Leganes last weekend, placing coach Luis Enrique in the firing line.
“Barca are still the best in the world,” said Simeone on Saturday.
“It is very difficult to compete as they have in the past decade. With Luis Enrique they have eight trophies, competed at the highest level and one bad game like against Paris can happen to anyone.
“We played three extraordinary halves against them and still didn’t get through, that shows that they are better.”
By contrast, Atletico are well on course to reach the Champions League quarter-finals for a fourth straight year after a 4-2 win away at Bayer Leverkusen in their last 16, first leg on Tuesday.
Kevin Gameiro looks set to keep his place ahead of Fernando Torres alongside Antoine Griezmann up front as he shone brightest despite all three getting on the scoresheet in midweek.
Atletico will be further boosted by the return of defensive lynchpin Diego Godin from injury, whilst goalkeeper Jan Oblak could make his first appearance since December after recovering from surgery on a dislocated shoulder.
Luis Enrique, meanwhile, is hoping a first midweek off since the turn of the year is what Barca needed to recharge their batteries and recover their form.
“It is the first free midweek we have had in 2017. The schedule has been brutal and it is evident that takes its toll,” said Enrique.
“The week allowed us to work on things, for the team to rest and analyse what is going on with the team.”
Real Madrid’s defeat to Valencia in midweek means Barca still trail their title rivals by just a point.
And Luis Enrique’s men can go top for at least a few hours with victory at the Vicente Calderon, with Madrid not in action until later on Sunday at Villarreal.