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Atlético Madrid-Deportivo Alavés: The first of 11 finals

The sprint to the league title begins in earnest.

Chelsea FC v Atletico Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Matthew Lewis - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid’s midweek Champions League elimination leaves LaLiga as the team’s only chance at silverware this season, and Diego Simeone’s men have to respond to the pressure when Alavés come to visit on Sunday night.

“I feel that the team is giving everything, a ten out of ten (in everything),” Simeone said on Saturday.

“The one who has to improve and grow so the team can respond is me.”

Simeone took responsibility for his team’s poor run — three wins from 10 between LaLiga and the Champions League, including Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Even still, despite this challenging stretch, Atlético (19-6-2, 63 points) maintain a three-point edge over Real Madrid and a four-point advantage over Barcelona entering Sunday’s meeting with 19th-placed Alavés (5-8-14, 23 points).

“The team worked well yesterday, with enthusiasm and desire, and they are focused on Alavés,” Simeone said. “We seek to push ourselves to the maximum.”

Since the calendar flipped to 2021, Alavés have dismissed Pablo Machín and replaced him with former coach Abelardo. The coaching change has not had the desired impact on a team that is trying to secure a sixth straight season in the top flight, to say the least. The Basque side has won one, drawn two, and lost eight of its 11 league games in 2021 — including the reverse fixture against Atlético on Jan. 3.

Deportivo Alaves v Cadiz CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

“(Alavés) are a tough opponent, with a good coach who always puts in hard work and has a defined system,” Simeone said. “The results have not been there for them, but they are competitive. You have to find where to hurt them.”

Atlético can be buoyed knowing that Alavés have generated better than one expected goal on just three occasions in 2021, and Abelardo’s team hasn’t kept a clean sheet in five. Alavés have not beaten Atleti away since May 2003, when Abelardo played for the visitors.

No player on either side has more goals in this matchup than Saúl Ñíguez, but the beleaguered midfielder is expected to start from the bench Sunday. Simeone has taken training this week with a full-strength group, and the rojiblancos want nothing more than to seal three points and enter the international break on a high note — and still in first place.

“This is a demanding league,” Simeone said. “Several teams are being talked about as title contenders.”

The squad João Félix (suspended) is the only absence.

Date March 21, 2021

Location Estadio Wanda Metropolitano, Madrid

Kickoff time 6:30 p.m. CET, 5:30 p.m. GMT, 1:30 p.m. EST, 10:30 a.m. PST

Available TV/streaming Movistar LaLiga (Spain), LaLiga TV (United Kingdom), beIN Sports (United States), ESPN Sur (Argentina), Eleven Sports 2 (Belgium), Canal+ Sport 5 Afrique (Central African Republic), Migu (China)