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MADRID, Jan 31 (Reuters) - With city rivals Real breathing down their necks, second-placed Atletico Madrid are desperate to get top scorer Radamel Falcao back from injury for Sunday's La Liga game at home to Real Betis (2000 GMT).
Colombia striker Falcao, who has netted just under half (18) of Atletico's 42 goals this season, has been sidelined since damaging a thigh muscle in the 2-0 win at home to Levante on Jan. 20 and was absent when his side crashed to a 3-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao last weekend.
Coach Diego Simeone said on Wednesday that Falcao might return for Atletico's King's Cup semi-final first leg at home to Sevilla later on Thursday but said he would not rush his leading player back into action too quickly.
"Falcao is to us what Cristiano (Ronaldo) is to Madrid and (Lionel) Messi is to Barcelona," Simeone told a news conference.
"I want players of his quality when they are fit and not before," added the Argentine.
Champions Real, whose hopes of a second consecutive title are all but over after they slipped 15 points behind leaders Barcelona, can close to within a point of Atletico with a win at Granada on Saturday (2100).
Barca play at Valencia on Sunday (1800) when Messi, who hit four past Osasuna last weekend, will be looking to add to his impressive tally of 33 goals in 21 games this season, 11 more than second-highest scorer Ronaldo.
Jose Mourinho's Real side warmed up for the Granada match with a battling 1-1 draw at home to Barca in their Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday.
New goalkeeper Diego Lopez, signed from Sevilla as cover for the injured Iker Casillas, put in a solid performance on his debut that suggested he will be a safe guardian during the two to three months captain Casillas is out after breaking a bone in his hand.
"I have found a very united and strong dressing room," Lopez, a product of Real's youth academy, told reporters.
"I missed the atmosphere of the stadium, arriving in the team bus, and then to play this game against Barcelona, I couldn't be happier."
The Real game will be a baptism of fire for Granada coach Lucas Alcaraz, appointed by the struggling Andalusian club on Wednesday to replace the sacked Juan Antonio Anquela and help the club avoid the drop to the second division.
Granada, who completed the signing of Argentine midfielder Diego Buonanotte on Thursday and have also taken forward Nolito on loan from Benfica until the end of the season, are one place above the relegation zone in 17th. (Editing by Clare Fallon)