MADRID Radamel Falcao's strike in Atletico Madrid's 1-0 La Liga victory at Sevilla on Sunday not only took his tally for the season to a personal record of 25 goals, it also put the club within touching distance of a Champions League berth for next term.
The coveted Colombia striker known as "The Tiger" matched his previous best haul for league goals set playing for Porto in the 2009-10 campaign and Atletico stretched their lead over fourth-placed Real Sociedad to 13 points with six games left.
Falcao, 27, valued at 60 million euros on Transfermarkt.com, has attracted the attention of some of Europe's wealthiest clubs with his goal-scoring exploits.
Even after Atletico confirm their place in the next edition of the Champions League, it would be no great surprise if he was lining up against them for a club such as Chelsea, Paris St Germain or even city rivals Real Madrid in Europe's elite club competition next term.
An offer anywhere near 60 million euros would be hard, if not impossible, for cash-strapped Atletico to resist and would enable them to purchase two or three top performers to strengthen their squad.
Falcao's goal on Sunday was a typical poacher's effort but showcased only part of his game which includes excellent heading prowess and the ability to shoot with both feet from close range and outside the penalty area.
With his flowing dark hair and swarthy good looks he is a marketing executive's dream and has one of soccer's most powerful agents behind him in Jorge Mendes, who represents Portuguese compatriots Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho, among many others.
Atletico's victory at Sevilla kept them hard on the heels of second-placed Real, whom they host next weekend and meet in the final of the King's Cup next month.
If Atletico can beat Real by more than two goals at the Calderon they will climb above them into second by virtue of a better head-to-head record.
"We are close (to the Champions League)," coach Diego Simeone, who has transformed the club since taking over midway through last season, told a news conference after the Sevilla game.
"It's a project that the team has been working on Sunday after Sunday since the season began with a huge effort," added the Argentine, who played for Atletico when they won a La Liga and King's Cup double in 1996.
While Falcao has been lethal at one end of the pitch, Atletico's Belgian international Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been rock solid in goal.
His clean sheet on Sunday was his fifth in a row away from home and he has 18 overall in 32 matches this season, 10 at home and eight on the road.
If Chelsea are serious about making a bid for Falcao, Courtois could well form part of the deal.
($1 = 0.7644 euros)
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
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