* In-form Atletico chasing record start to a season
* Barca host Celta, Real at home to Zaragoza
By Mark Elkington
MADRID, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Joint-leaders Atletico Madrid can strike an important blow against a direct La Liga rival for a Champions League berth and set a new club record when they visit Valencia on Saturday.
The Europa League winners are level on points with Barcelona at the top of the standings, but second on goal difference, after a run of eight straight victories from nine games this season.
One more, and they will better their previous best start to a campaign, when they went on to win a league and King’s Cup double back in 1996.
The intimidating figure of Diego Simeone controlled Atletico’s midfield in the those days, and he now stalks the touchline as coach, lauded by the fans as much as his players.
The former Argentina captain has moulded a hard-working side that give little away, often happy to cede possession to rivals, but lethal on the counter-attack.
“The good thing about Atletico is that they have great players who know how to play as if they are in a small team,” Osasuna coach Jose Luis Mendilibar said after defeat at the Calderon last weekend.
“Then, going forward, they kill you. They are very quick and take their chances. They are on a roll.”
Atletico’s Colombia striker Radamel Falcao, with 10 league goals so far, is one of the most coveted players in Europe and has helped the club go 23 games unbeaten across all competitions.
The last time they tasted defeat was against city rivals Real Madrid when they fell 4-1 at home in the league on April 11 last season.
Simeone, however, is not one for too much introspection.
“We aren’t going to stop and analyse what we are doing, that wouldn’t be good,” he said after Wednesday’s 3-0 King’s Cup win at Jaen, their 13th consecutive victory this season.
“The good thing is to think about Valencia which will be extremely tough.”
Valencia, who finished third in La Liga the last three years, are struggling down in 11th place, 14 points adrift of their visitors.
New coach Mauricio Pellegrino is still struggling to get the best out of his squad and a famously impatient Mestalla will surely vent their frustration if the side fail to respond against a direct rival for a top four finish.
Unbeaten leaders Barcelona host Celta Vigo on Saturday (1700) with no sign of a return from injury for centre-backs Carles Puyol or Gerard Pique.
Third-placed Malaga, seven points behind the leaders, host Rayo Vallecano on Saturday (1500), while champions Real Madrid, a point further back in fourth, are at home to Real Zaragoza (1900). (Reporting by Mark Elkington; Editing by John O‘Brien)