MADRID: Champions Barcelona travel to unbeaten league leaders Atletico Madrid on Sunday in the first major duel of the 2010/11 La Liga season as both sides present their title credentials.
Barcelona crushed Panathinaikos 5-1 on Tuesday in the Champions League and hope to get back on track in the league after their shock 2-0 home defeat to promoted Hercules.
Atletico were the only team to beat Barcelona in the league last season winning 2-1 at the Vicente Calderon and the Europa League holders have started with a maximum six points to top the standings.
Atletico have so far refused to talk themselves up as title contenders and will have to contend with an in-form Lionel Messi who scored two goals in the Panathinaikos win and the 23-year-old is Barcelona’s all-time Champions League leading scorer with 27 goals.
Messi has been hailed as the greatest player on the planet and defender Gerard Pique laughed off suggestions Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo was in the same league.
"Comparing (Cristiano) Ronaldo with Messi is absurd," said Pique. "Right now there is such a big difference. Messi shows us every day and there is no need for a debate."
Atletico have two fine strikers themselves in experienced Uruguayan Diego Forlan and his younger sidekick Sergio "Kun" Aguero.
Forlan, voted best player at the World Cup finals, tops the goalscoring charts with three goals and is fit to play, however, Argentine Aguero, 22, has a knock that makes him a doubt for the Barcelona clash.
"I am not going to say that you don’t notice if Kun (Aguero) is playing or not," said team-mate Raul Garcia. "He is such an important player and we will have to see if he is ready (for Barcelona)."
If Atletico win they would be six points clear of champions Barcelona who currently lie in ninth position on three points.
"Atletico have won the Europa League, European Super Cup and their first two league matches so it will be difficult," said Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta. "They have top international players and are one of the best teams in Europe at the moment."
Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho goes in search of his first away win on Saturday when his side travel to unbeaten Real Sociedad.
Mourinho’s side were jeered following their narrow 1-0 win over Osasuna at the Santiago Bernabeu but Wednesday’s impressive 2-0 Champions League win over Ajax saw the jeers turn to cheers.
Real should have won much more comfortably and have yet to concede in their three first games under Mourinho.
"I am overjoyed to get bored in goal," said Real goalkeeper Iker Casillas. "We were phenomenal against Ajax and we are making the opposition goalkeeper be their best player as we create so many goalscoring chances."
Real have collected four points from six to sit fifth while promoted Sociedad, who finished runner-up to Real in the 2003 title race, are above them on goal difference.
In other matches, Valencia hope to continue their perfect start to the season by bringing Hercules off cloud nine after their historic win over Barcelona at Camp Nou.
Promoted Hercules host Valencia on Sunday aiming to take another big scalp but come up against a side with a maximum six points in the league and high on confidence after winning 4-0 at Bursaspor in their Champions League opener on Tuesday.
Elsewhere third-placed Sevilla, with four points from six, travel to Malaga on Sunday looking to maintain their unbeaten start to the campaign.
Sevilla coach Antonio Alvarez has chosen to leave Brazilian international striker Luis Fabiano out of late and the striker voiced his frustration in the press.
"It is horrible being on the substitutes’ bench and with the utmost respect I am not used to it," said Fabiano.
At the bottom, promoted Levante and Racing Santander — the only two teams with no points — hope to kickstart their seasons with wins.
Levante host Villarreal on Sunday while Santander are at home to Real Zaragoza on Sunday.