BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — During Real Madrid’s traditional team dinner before the winter break in Spain, France left back Ferland Mendy discovered he had an insightful “Secret Santa.”

Mendy’s anonymous Christmas present turned out to be a brick.

The brick was meant as a joke, but one with a point. It was that Mendy plays with an intense determination to stop attackers from advancing down his side of the pitch.

“That gift of the brick was because during practice he sometimes gives us some very hard knocks,” fellow defender Raphael Varane said on Saturday, after Mendy was one of Madrid’s top performers in a 1-0 win over Atlético Madrid.

“It was a little joke. We know how good a defender he is. He is in great shape. He is incredibly strong. He is adapting well to the team and helps it in every facet.”

Ever since the days of the “Galácticos,” Madrid has won titles by overwhelming opponents with its collection of world-class attacking players.

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But this season Madrid is leading the Spanish league and is undefeated in 21 matches largely thanks to its stingy defense.

With its victory over Atlético, Zinedine Zidane’s side set a club record of conceding only 13 goals through 22 rounds of the Spanish league. Madrid conceded 14 goals through the first 22 rounds in 1987-88.

Barcelona has outscored Madrid 52-40 in the league, but it has conceded 13 more goals and trails Madrid by three points.

“Defending is down to all of us, when we lose the ball we work quickly to get it back,” Zidane said after the Madrid derby. “People come to see their team playing well, fighting. I know we cannot always play brilliantly. Today was tough but the way people talk about the team after the game is down to the way we play. We got our reward today against a top rival who plays well.”

Zidane has made his defense much more reliable by benching longtime starter Marcelo in favor of Mendy, who arrived from Lyon for 48 million euros (then $54 million) in the off season. The 24-year-old Mendy is a tireless worker on the left flank, patching up the one hole in Madrid’s backline that Marcelo would leave open to join in attack.

And despite not having the scoring skills of Marcelo, Mendy did place a perfect cross for Karim Benzema to score the winner against Atlético.

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LIVERPOOL OR BUST

Atlético’s season hinges on beating the team playing the best football in Europe.

Diego Simeone’s side is 13 points behind Madrid after losing their derby. The loss capped a dismal period that has included losing the Spanish Super Cup final to Madrid and being eliminated from the Copa del Rey’s round of 32 by a third-tier rival.

The team that finished the last two league seasons as runner-up to Barcelona and has its fans accustomed to competing for titles is now in danger of having nothing to play for.

Atlético will put its focus on reviving an attack that has scored one goal in five straight games. Liverpool plays at Madrid on Feb. 18 in the opening leg of their Champions League round-of-16 match. The return leg at Anfield is March 11.

It also must ensure it finishes in the top four in Spain to earn a Champions League spot next season. Three rounds without a win have left Atlético in sixth place.

“There is reason to be concerned, of course,” Simeone said. “All we can do is keep working to try to get out of this uncomfortable situation.”

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Atlético hosts Granada and visits Valencia before facing Liverpool.

AGUIRRE EFFECT

Leganés has only lost once in the last seven rounds under coach Javier Aguirre, who took over the team in early November.

Before his arrival, the team had lost nine, drawn two and won one. Since he took over, it has three wins, four draws and three losses. It has risen from last place to the brink of emerging from the relegation zone.

Nor has the team been damaged since losing one of its top attacking players when it sold Youssef En-Nesyri to Sevilla for a reported 20 million euros ($22 million) last month.

Aguirre, a former Mexico coach, has a reputation in Spain for saving clubs in trouble. He helped Espanyol and Zaragoza avoid relegation. He established himself as a leading coach in the Spanish league by making Osasuna a strong side from 2002-2006. That earned him a job at Atlético Madrid.

“We have to understand that we cannot let our guard down and that we are playing to avoid the drop with each game we play,” Aguirre said. “It is prohibited to lose hope.”

In December, Aguirre and 36 football players were found not guilty after being defendants in a trial of alleged match-fixing involving a 2011 game between Zaragoza and Levante.

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