When Diego Costa collided with the post against Getafe, he showed the commitment many Barcelona fans feel is lacking from their side. The Copa Del Rey now becomes massive...
Real Madrid (Iron Man), Barcelona (Thor) and Atletico Madrid (Captain America) all assembled to win their La Liga matches this weekend. It goes on and on...
Despite the fact that Serie A is fairly sizzling this season, largely thanks to the introduction of La Liga talent up front and in defence at Juventus and Napoli, attitudes to the Italian game from their neighbours across the Mediterranean remain sniffy.
This view still prevails from the early nineties, when Serie A sides took great joy in grinding out thoughtful goalless draws week-in, week-out as if the league was some kind of conceptual art project. It was no real surprise that Fabio Capello was treated with more distain than was deserved during his two very successful spells at Real Madrid, with the media calling for the Italian to be taken the French border and left there to find his own way home. After all, only Spanish coaches can get away with playing double defensive pivots.
Although Atlético's goalless stalemate with Barcelona from Saturday night was a classic example of two teams trying to avoid defeat and being quite content with the result, the reaction has been largely positive with the game being seen as a classic example of the immovable object of the Rojiblancos meeting the unstoppable force of Barcelona. "They couldn't beat us and we couldn't beat them," said Diego Simeone. Perhaps there was a certain amount of relief thrown in from the home amp with the confirmation that Atlético are as proficient and professional as everyone previously thought.
Barcelona showed the immense attacking talent available in the squad with Neymar and Leo Messi starting the game on the bench, with Pedro, Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fabregas entrusted to lead the line, a more robust option than a Brazilian still recovering from a stomach upset and Messi's ankles and knees, which were not quite ready for an onslaught from Atlético's back four. That left Andrés Iniesta as the punch bag of choice, a footballer only able to withstand 45 minutes of being booted about. "They have a totally different style to ours," noted a non-moaning Xavi Hernández, "but completely valid, they do it excellently."
There was certainly an Italian element to Diego Simeone's set-up on Saturday with Atlético coach's time spent playing in Italy and learning the importance of rigour, discipline and organisation reflected in two lines of four which smothered Barcelona from the off. By the end of the 90 minutes, the visitors had mustered just two shots on target, the fewest in La Liga this season. "Both sides found it hard to create chances," said Tata Martino after a result that makes Barcelona unofficial "winter champions" by leading La Liga - all be it on goal difference - at the halfway stage of the current campaign.
The first twenty minutes saw both sides trying to carve out opportunities in a high-tempo affair, before tailing off to a pragmatic finish which saw all happy to take a point. For Simeone, it was a vindication of all the hard work of his players that sees Atlético on 50 points with just seven dropped from the first half of the year. "We have respect for Barcelona, but there is a small difference of €400 million," was the observation from Atlético's inspirational coach.
Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were not the only two teams delighted with the result, however, as Real Madrid also benefited from the two title-challengers taking points off each other. Although Carlo Ancelotti's side laboured to beat Espanyol in Cornella (a Pepe header the only difference between the teams), the victory brings the gap down from first and second to third to just three points, with half the season to play.
The two results set La Liga up nicely for the first three-headed title race since 2007, when Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla were all going for gold, and all in contention up to the last day of the season. That was an epic affair, but it could be nothing compared to what may yet happen this year if Atleti and Barca can repeat the form of their last 19 games and set up a whopper of a season finale in the Camp Nou.
Round 19 Results
Granada 4-0 Valladolid
Athletic Bilbao 6-1 Almería
Atlético 0-0 Barcelona
Elche 1-1 Sevilla
Getafe 0-1 Rayo Vallecano
Celta Vigo 2-1 Valencia
Real Betis 1-2 Osasuna
Espanyol 0-1 Real Madrid
Levante 1-0 Málaga
Villarreal v Real Sociedad (Monday)
Tim Stannard - follow him on Twitter