Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino says that Atletico Madrid are real title contenders in Spain this season.
For what seems like a generation, La Liga has been a two-horse race, with Barca and Real Madrid vying for honours in a captivating yet repetitive battle of bulging budgets.
However, for the last two seasons, there have been rumblings in the more down-to-earth sections of the Spanish capital and working-class Atleti have begun to make their presence felt.
Los Rojiblancos are currently a heady five points ahead of their neighbours Real and second only to Barca on goal difference.
Much has been made of Martino’s record breaking 100% start to life as Barca boss but, so far, Atleti’s Diego Simeone has matched him point for point.
Judging from their results so far, Martino suspects that Atleti are not simply going to go away this season and that La Liga is now a three-horse race.
“There are three teams that can win this league but hardly anyone agrees with me,” Martino told reporters.
“I got a good look at Atletico in the Supercopa.”
Looming on the horizon for Barca is the first Clasico of the season, when Martino will come face-to-face with Los Blancos for the first time.
However, he does not want to get ahead of himself by thinking exclusively of the dangers Real Madrid pose just yet.
“We have matches against Osasuna and Milan first,” he said. “The games we have coming up before the Clasico are important.”
Meanwhile, there is still reassuring news about the timing of superstar Lionel Messi’s return from injury. At least, Martino will have other reinforcements to boost his first-team squad soon.
“I don’t know if [Messi] will be back for the game against Osasuna. We shouldn’t take risks, and keep an eye on what’s next. But Jordi Alba and [Javier] Mascherano will be there,” he said.
“[Puyol’s] knee is responding well. If everything is fine at the end of the week, he’ll be ready for [the Osasuna match in] Pamplona.”