Atletico 1.20, Draw 6.50, Levante 16.00 – Saturday 15:00 GMT
La Liga returns from its winter break on Saturday afternoon, with third-placed Atletico Madrid hosting 15th spotted Levante at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Atletico had a tricky December on and off the pitch, but the way in which they finished 2014 at Athletic Bilbao was mighty impressive. With key duo Koke and Mario Mandzukic suspended, Diego Simeone’s team were 1-0 down at the break, and looked headed for another away defeat. But Antoine Griezmann’s second-half hat-trick lead to a 4-1 final scoreline which kept the defending champions in the title race.
Then during their holidays, Los Colchoneros fans received the news that former hero Fernando Torres was returning after seven-and-a-half years away. Whether ‘El Nino’, now almost 31, can regain the vigour and goalscoring touch of his youth remains an open question. It will not begin to be answered against Levante, as the complicated loan-deal involving Milan and Chelsea cannot be completed until the Italian transfer window opens on January 5. He should therefore make his second debut in Wednesday’s Copa del Rey last 16 first leg at home to Real Madrid.
The hype around the transfer has also taken some of the focus away from the continuing fallout from the pre-game violence before the home fixture against Deportivo in early December. Atletico’s final Calderon game of 2014 saw a very subdued atmosphere, and the team losing 1-0 to Villarreal. On Friday Simeone called on all his team’s supporters to get behind their players and start the new year in a positive manner.
“We would like to have a full stadium, and invite all our faithful to be in the place where they brought us so much joy last year,” he said. “We need our people.”
Even with the Copa derbi game looming, not too much rotation is expected for the game. It looks likely that Griezmann and Mandzukic will start up front, with playmaker Arda Turan apparently over a muscle problem and available. Brazil centre-back Miranda remains troubled by a hamstring issue, so extra-impressive youngster Jose Maria Gimenez should deputise again. Simeone’s squad were put through an extra-tough session on New Years Day [ http://as.com/videos/2015/01/01/portada/1420138629_975970.html], showing again that the Argentine coach is not one for too much sentimentality.
Levante’s 1-1 draw at home to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad last time out means Los Granotas have drawn each of their last five games in all competitions, and remain hovering just above the La Liga relegation zone. Coach Lucas Alvarez has no new injury worries, but veteran centre-back David Navarro is missing due to his latest suspension.
The Valencia based side were slightly unfortunate to lose 3-2 in this fixture last season, and then actually won the reverse game 2-0 in April as Simeone’s side stumbled slightly as a first title in almost two decades drew close. That result might just add even more motivation for Atletico’s players and fans this time around though - and it’s hard to see anything but a comfortable home win this time.
Predicted scoreline: Atletico Madrid 3-0 Levante at 6.10