MADRID Amidst all the noise created by Barcelona's record-equalling start to La Liga and Real Madrid's problems in trying to keep pace, Atletico Madrid are quietly making their case to be considered title contenders.
Atletico's resounding 4-0 home win over Sevilla, who were forced to play most of the game with 10 men on Sunday, left them second in the standings only three points behind Tito Vilanova's unbeaten leaders.
Diego Simeone's side have won 11 of 13 games, bettering their start to the league and King's Cup-winning campaign of 1995-96 of which he played a part on the pitch, and it does not look like faltering just yet.
"Atletico are fighting for the top spot, not just for the European positions," Sevilla coach Michel told reporters at the Calderon on Sunday.
The Europa League winners have to play Barca and champions Real away in the next three weeks, but hold an eight-point advantage over Jose Mourinho's side in third, ahead of the city derby at the Bernabeu next Saturday.
"They are keeping pace with Barcelona and have an important advantage over Madrid," added former Spain midfielder Michel, who won six league titles as a player with Real Madrid.
"The difference between great teams and the rest is their conviction and firepower, and Atletico have both."
Sunday's win was set in motion by leading scorer Radamel Falcao, who struck his 11th goal of the campaign when he netted from the penalty spot after 22 minutes.
Although Falcao's predatory instincts are a part of the explanation for Atletico's success, midfielder Tiago pointed out the influence of coach Simeone.
"He has given us a different mentality," the Portugal international told reporters about the former Argentina captain.
"We knew we had a good squad with great players but we didn't believe in ourselves. The boss has managed to get us to do that.
"He demonstrates his confidence in us week by week and we are responding to it."
Hanging on to Falcao in the January transfer window after media reports strongly linked Chelsea with a move for the Colombia striker will be a key factor in Atletico possibly extending their purple patch.
Atletico, who have already qualified for the knockout stages of the Europa League, host third-tier Jaen in a King's Cup last-32 second leg on Wednesday before their derby date next weekend.
The 2010 cup finalists hold a 3-0 advantage from the first leg.
(Reporting by Mark Elkington, editing by Mark Meadows)