In and out of the shadows

They have long lived in the shadows of their local rivals. Espanyol and Atletico Madrid meet this Sunday in a fascinating fixture in the sixth round of Primera Division matches – but the two teams' respective realities could hardly be more different.

Not so long ago it was Espanyol who were punching above their weight and expecting great things under their former defensive idol and current Coach Mauricio Pochettino. But times are hard at Cornella and the Catalan club lie in 19th ahead of Saturday's clash.

So second to bottom meets second to top and Atletico, having already claimed the Europa League and the UEFA Super Cup under Diego Simeone, now look to seal the holy grail – a return to the Champions League this term.

They should have been there last season, but endured a dreadful start under Gregorio Manzano and were not quite consistent enough following Simeone's arrival and lost out to Malaga on the last day of the season.

With qualification missed, club officials admitted that Radamel Falcao's future at the Calderon was in doubt, but the star striker stayed and the project has gone from strength to strength in the current campaign. The Colombian is now the world's best striker and has played a pivotal part in his side's success so far in 2012-13. And there appears to be more to come.

Five goals conceded against Rayo Vallecano and Betis will concern Simeone, but eight scored in those two games is proof that Atletico are virtually impossible to stop when in full flight.

Espanyol have been hit by player sales in recent seasons, unable to replace the quality of the likes of Jose Callejon, Dani Osvaldo and even Luis Garcia. Pochettino is working on a shoestring and the club's fans are becoming anxious. Only three players remain from the team which beat Atletico 3-2 in a thrilling game back in November of 2010 and dared to dream of greater things.

Not now they aren't. Pessimism prevails at Cornella and with just one point from their opening five games, even relegation isn't out of the question now.

Pochettino, only recently a reported Real Madrid target, must be getting restless, too. He is clearly a young Coach with much to offer but must envy compatriot Simeone and the players he has at his disposal.

Espanyol have beaten Barcelona at Camp Nou under Pochettino, but are firmly back in the shadows of their fiercest rivals now. Atletico, though, sit five places and six points above their own eternal enemies – Real Madrid. And if they can keep up their fabulous form, they may just stay there, while Espanyol will now be content merely to stay up. How times have changed.

Elsewhere, Real host Deportivo in another intriguing clash this weekend, a fixture which a decade ago would have been top billing in Spain as the two were often title rivals around the turn of the century. The Galicians also famously upset their hosts' planned party on their centenary with a shock success at the Bernabeu in the 2002 Copa del Rey final. A decade on and such an outcome seems less than likely now, however.

Meanwhile, Barcelona look to retain their eight-point advantage over Madrid on Saturday but face a tough trip to Sevilla, where their rivals have already succumbed this season.

And the weekend's other standout spectacle in La Liga sees under-performing pair Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao come together in what promises to be a fiercely disputed Basque derby. As usual, there will be no love lost but, the two teams will hope, points gained. With just 11 between them so far this term, both badly need them.