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Simeone facing toughest campaign so far at Atlético

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Diego Simeone has long been considered one of the top coaches in Europe for his transformation of Atlético Madrid from the unimpressive second team of the Spanish capital into a multiple-title winner and Champions League finalist.

But following a profound overhaul of his squad, this season is proving to be his biggest challenge yet. Atlético entered this week with some of its most demanding fans criticizing the team after it had just two wins in eight games across all competitions. To complicate matters, Atlético lost summer signing João Félix— its expensive replacement for Antoine Griezmann— to a right ankle injury last weekend in a 1-1 draw with Valencia.

Simone has responded to the signs of crisis by guiding his team to back-to-back victories. "We have been able to deal with the absence of João Félix and that shows that our team is stronger," Simeone said. "We don't know any other way, not only when we win, than to stay united. We have a new team, young players. We know our path and we need for the club officials, the players, and all the rest of us to be looking forward."

Atlético is being sustained by goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who made another excellent save to swat away a goal-bound header by Bilbao's Iñigo Martínez in the first half of Saturday's 2-0 win over Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish league.

The Slovenia goalkeeper anchors a defensive four which has been almost completely redone with the exits of Diego Godín, Lucas Hernández, Filipe Luís and Juanfran Torres. In their place Felipe Monteiro, Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi have quickly adapted to Simeone's basic tenet of defend first, score second. Its defense has conceded a league-low five goals.

The exit of Griezmann, however, has turned out to be harder to handle. With Deigo Costa and other forwards struggling, Atlético has scored 10 goals in 10 rounds, the lowest of the top seven teams. Barcelona has 23 goals with a game to play. Villarreal leads the league with 24 goals.

The team's toothless attack has led to some supporters jeering captain Jorge "Koke" Resurrección. Álvaro Morata alleviated his team's troubles this week. The former Real Madrid and Chelsea striker came off the bench to head in Atlético's late goal in a 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League on Tuesday. Morata then scored a second goal to seal the victory over Bilbao that ended a run of three straight draws in the Spanish league and kept his side in the thick of the early title race after 10 rounds.

The wins come before Atlético goes on the road for five of its next six matches, including a trip to Juventus in Europe. It then hosts Barcelona in early December. "Now we need to rest up because we have an extremely hard week ahead," Simeone said referring to upcoming matches at Alavés, Sevilla and Leverkusen.

CLÁSICO CRUNCH Postponing the "clásico" between Barcelona and Real Madrid to prevent it from coinciding with a large separatist protest in Barcelona may not isolate it from the political tensions wracking Spain.

The Spanish league urged its marquee match to be moved after Barcelona and nearby towns were rocked during the past two weeks. Catalan separatists are angered by the sentencing of nine leaders of their movement to lengthy prison terms by the Supreme Court.

Separatists had called for a massive rally in Barcelona on Saturday, when the "clásico" was originally scheduled to be played at Camp Nou. The rally drew 350,000 people. It proceeded peacefully, but after it concluded a few thousand separatists clashed with police in the city center. Forty-four people were injured, according to regional health authorities.

But it appears that the new date of Dec. 18 for the "clásico" could also be a protest target. A separatist group called Tsunami Democratic has called on its supporters to reserve a set of dates for protests. These include Dec. 18 when, the group says, "we play at home" in reference to Barcelona's home game against Madrid.

Spain's Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska has said the match can be played under secure conditions on any date.

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