REUTERS - Barcelona are still the best team in the world despite their recent troubles, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said on Saturday as his team prepared to face the La Liga champions.
The two teams meet on Sunday for the 12th time since Luis Enrique took charge of Barcelona in 2014 as Atletico look to capitalise on their rivals' stuttering form in a game that could have huge ramifications for the title race.
Barca trail Real Madrid by one point at the top and their hopes of catching their bitter rivals were lifted last week when Real lost a rescheduled game at Valencia, meaning a win at Atletico would provisionally take them back to the top before Real's testing game at Villarreal.
Real have 52 points while Barca have 51 although the leaders have a game in hand on the Catalans, whose confidence has been punctured by the 4-0 thrashing they suffered at the hands of Paris St Germain in the Champions League.
Barca scraped a 2-1 win over struggling Leganes last weekend only thanks to a 90th-minute penalty from Lionel Messi but Simeone said these recent setbacks had done nothing to convince him they would be any less dangerous on Sunday
"Barcelona are still the best team in the world and it all depends on what they do. They're motivated about the title race after Real's defeat so I expect to see the best performance from them," Simeone told a news conference.
"It's very difficult to compete as they have done over the last decade; they've won eight trophies with Luis Enrique and competed at the highest level and anyone can have a bad day like they did in Paris."
A win for Atletico would take them on to 48 points, provisionally four behind Real and three off Barca, but Simeone batted away questions about whether victory would reignite his side's title push.
"We're only thinking about the Barca game and nothing beyond that; they are a direct rival for third place and if the league permits it maybe something bigger, but it's still too soon to tell. There's still a lot of games left in the season," he said.
Atletico have been boosted by the return of influential defender Diego Godin after two weeks out with a hamstring injury while Javier Mascherano and Arda Turan face late fitness tests.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Clare Fallon