Barcelona, Atletico aim to extend record starts

JOSEPH WILSON Associated Press Published:

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Barcelona and Atletico Madrid will look to extend their best ever starts to the Spanish league with wins against defensive stalwarts Levante and Sevilla on Sunday.

Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova has led the Catalan club to an unbeaten record of 11 wins and one draw through the opening 12 rounds of his debut season, and Atletico is keeping pace only three points behind the league leaders.

Lionel Messi is fueling Barcelona with a league-high 17 goals. The Argentina forward has scored 80 times in 2012 for club and country and is only five goals away from the single-year record set by Gerd Mueller for Bayern Munich and Germany in 1972.

On Saturday, third-place Real Madrid will visit the unpredictable Real Betis.

Messi scored his ninth double of the season on Tuesday when Barcelona advanced to the knockout stage of the Champions League for the ninth straight season by winning 3-0 at Spartak Moscow.

Barcelona, which has had several injuries in defense, kept its opponents scoreless for only the sixth time through 20 games this season.

"We hadn't kept a clean sheet in a while and we are very happy to have done so," said defender Dani Alves, who scored Barcelona's opener in Russia. "We have a way of playing that when we all push forward in attack sometimes we leave our defense exposed."

Levante has become a specialist in taking advantage of such opportunities to hit on the break.

Striker Obafemi Martins has scored five goals, most by using his speed on the counterattack, in only eight appearances since joining Levante this offseason.

Expected to struggle between balancing its maiden Europa League campaign with the domestic competitions, Levante has instead picked up where it left off last season and has climbed up into fourth place.

Levante has proven particularly tough at home with four wins, one draw and one loss -- when Madrid needed a late goal to topple the Valencia-based side.

Atletico continues to impress under coach Diego Simeone, a former Atletico midfielder who helped the team win both the league and Copa del Rey titles in the 1995-96 season.

Since returning as a coach midway through last season with Atletico in disarray, Simeone has forged his players into one of Spain's best teams based on tough defense, physicality, and striker Radamel Falcao's 10 league goals.

Atletico will host a Sevilla side reinvigorated by what coach Michel Gonzalez called one of the best first halves of football he had ever seen when his team defeated Real Betis 5-1 last weekend in the Seville derby, Spain's most heated intercity rivalry.

Sevilla forward Jose Antonio Reyes had his best game since rejoining his boyhood club last season by scoring two goals. The former Arsenal player may be asked to carry the scoring load again with Spain striker Alvaro Negredo injured.

Sevilla has allowed 14 goals this season. Only three of the 20 teams have conceded fewer goals.

Madrid travels to Seville on Saturday having wrapped up its classification for the next round of the Champions League after drawing 1-1 and eliminating Manchester City on Wednesday.

The team is eight points behind Barcelona but has won five straight in the league.

Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 19 goals in all competitions and 12 in league play. He will be looking to add to his tally against Betis after not finding the back of the net in the last two games.

Betis is in sixth place after an erratic start that has included two wins by five and four goals as well as three losses by four or more goals.

Betis coach Pepe Mel will have to regroup his team after the loss at Sevilla when his goalkeeper and defenders repeatedly lost their nerves and committed several blunders early on.

"I'd never been in a defeat like we had last Sunday (against Sevilla)," Betis defender Alex Martinez said. "We ask our fans for forgiveness and we hope it won't happen again this Sunday.

"(Madrid) is one of the best teams in the world. We'll have to go out with a different attitude from last weekend."

Fifth-place Malaga hosts eighth-place Valencia on Saturday after both teams moved past the group phase of the Champions League this week.

Malaga is winless in its last four league matches, while Valencia has found its stride with three wins in its last five league games.

Also on Saturday, Mallorca visits Rayo Vallecano, and Granada is at Valladolid. Elsewhere on Sunday, it's: Real Zaragoza vs. Celta Vigo; Espanyol vs. Getafe; and Athletic Bilbao vs. Deportivo La Coruna. On Friday, Real Sociedad hosts Osasuna.