The most eagerly anticipated game in La Liga was played out on Saturday night, with champions Barcelona travelling to Madrid to take on their closest title rivals. However, this time the Catalans weren’t heading to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid. The game was between Barca and Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon. The sides went into the game level on points after 18 matches - with Barcelona ahead on goal difference - and the table remained that way after a tense 0-0 draw in which both sides looked as if they would rather not lose than go for the win.
Barca struggled to break their hosts down despite dominating possession for long periods. It was a typical display of control on the ball from the Spanish heavyweights as they ended the game with 69% possession compared to their hosts’s 31%. But Atletico’s game plan seemed to be working as they sat back and soaked up pressure before hitting Barcelona on the counter attack. The likes of Arda Turan and Diego Costa caused Barca all manner of problems, with the latter prodding wide after the ball fell to him at the back post. Turkish playmaker Turan also had an effort saved by Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal.
League leaders Barcelona clearly had their own game plan though, with boss Tata Martino leaving star men Lionel Messi - back from injury - and Neymar on the bench as they looked to get some control off the game. And with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas all starting, Barca’s attacks were patient and measured. This may have been because it was the only way to create anything against Diego Simeone’s well organised Atletico side, however they did create a chance for themselves with an Iniesta cross being headed over by Pedro.
Martino clearly felt that Argentine genius Messi could change the course of the game though as he was introduced at the beginning of the second half, coming on for Iniesta with Fabregas dropping deeper. Messi had a couple of great chances to get the winner for Barca after Neymar had also been introduced.
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner should definitely have done better with a header from 10 yards out after 68 minutes - only to see the attempt sail wide. Not too long after, Thibuait Courtois saved his effort from outside the area, but neither side could find the breakthrough. As the game became more stretched, Costa fizzed a shot just wide and Turan’s effort was well saved by Valdes.
With the match ending in scrappy fashion, the draw was probably a fair result. Both sides remain on top of the table with sixteen wins, two draws and one loss all season. It is certainly a testament to Simeone’s managerial ability that he has led Atletico into a title challenge without star-man Falcao, whilst Barca will be hoping they can sustain their form with Messi back on the team.
His return will boost the hopes of Barca fans worldwide, but it has been suggested that his presence has a negative effect on those around him - with Barca excelling in his absence. Surely though, his flashes of brilliance can push Barcelona on for the rest of the season, and it is hard to look beyond them in terms of potential title winners.
Meanwhile, for Atletico, the hope will be that the likes of former Barca man David Villa and Diego Costa can stay fit, just as they will hope that Koke, Turan and Gabi can remain on form. And with rumors persisting that Juan Mata could be heading to Madrid, we could be looking at the first winners of La Liga excluding Barca and Real since Rafa Benitez won the title with Valencia in 2004.
However, with half of the season left, it is too early to predict the champions and, more importantly, too early to discount Real Madrid as realistic challengers. Carlo Ancelotti & co. will be hoping that they can close the gap and that the top two will have a dip in form. Nevertheless, this is one of the most competitive title races yet in La Liga, and it will be raging on until the end of the season.