Atletico Madrid may be looking at its best chance to end an eight-year winless streak against Barcelona in the Spanish league.
The teams meet on Saturday at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid with Barcelona facing one of its worst defensive struggles in decades. It has already conceded 18 goals in 12 matches, its worst mark at this point in the league in more than 40 years, according to sports daily Marca.
Barcelona conceded only four goals through 12 matches last season, when it went on to win the title. Then, the team needed 33 matches to concede 18 goals. Only five teams have allowed more goals than Barcelona this season.
"It's something we have to improve," Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said on Friday.
The slump comes at a perfect time for Atletico, which can move past Barcelona at the top of the standings with a first win against the club since 2010, before coach Diego Simeone took charge. Atletico won that game at the old Vicente Calderon Stadium 2-1, with goals by Diego Forlan and Simao Sabrosa. Barcelona's lone goal was by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Atletico has only two wins against Barcelona in 26 matches since then, both in the Champions League, with the last one in 2016.
"It's been difficult for us when we play against Barcelona," Simeone said. "Barcelona has been the best team in the world recently."
Barcelona's problems on defense have coincided with an injury to regular starter Samuel Umtiti, who hasn't played since late September because of a left knee problem.
It didn't help that Thomas Vermaelen, the immediate substitute in central defense, injured a hamstring in October, forcing coach Ernesto Valverde to use recently signed youngster Clement Lenglet, a former Sevilla defender.
To make things worse, veteran Gerard Pique endured a poor run recently, making unusual mistakes that were costly for the team.
In the nine matches in all competitions after Umtiti was injured, Barcelona conceded 13 goals, including four in a stunning 4-3 loss to Real Betis at Camp Nou before the international break.
The good news was Umtiti was on the bench in the match against Real Betis and could be back in the starting lineup against Atletico.
"We played many matches with only two central defenders," Valverde said. "It's good to have another option."
Also positive is Barcelona's attack continued to work well, scoring 24 times in those nine matches without Umtiti. Barcelona has the league's best attack with 34 goals, 10 more than second-place Sevilla after 12 matches.
While Barcelona's defense has been playing below average, Atletico continues to rely on its stout defensive scheme. Simeone's team has the league's best defense with only eight goals conceded. On Saturday, though, Simeone will likely be without two important central defenders because of injuries: Jose Maria Gimenez and Diego Godin.
Atletico's attack also has done well recently, with the team having scored nine goals in its last five games.
Striker Diego Costa hasn't scored in nine appearances for Atletico in the league this season, but Simeone has plenty of options to keep the team going. Among the players he can use up front alongside Antoine Griezmann are Angel Correa and Victor "Vitolo" Machin, as well as new signings Nikola Kalinic and Gelson Martins.
If Barcelona's defensive struggles continue on Saturday, whoever plays for Atletico will have plenty of chances to help the team end its winless streak.
(With AP Inputs)