Barcelona winter champions after Atletico draw

Posted by Francesc Tomas

Barcelona achieved a hard-fought 0-0 draw against Atletico de Madrid at the Vicente Calderon in Matchday 19 of La Liga. The Blaugrana enjoyed 69 percent of possession, created nine goal-scoring chances and attempted seven shots, two of them on target.

- Report: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Key 1: Gerardo Martino decided to start this highly important match without Lionel Messi or Neymar. Considering that the top position in the domestic league table was at stake and looking at the final result after the 90 minutes, one could argue that such risky decision didn't work out as well as the Argentinean coach would have hoped so.

However, I seriously doubt that the two star players would have made a huge difference to the outcome of the game if they had in fact started.

Messi, who joined the game after half-time substituting for the injured Andres Iniesta, just didn't look as deadly as he did against Getafe in midweek. The Atletico back-line were much better prepared to contain his efforts, with both their centre-backs getting constant support from midfielders in order to block any open passing options.

Neymar was only given 25 minutes on the pitch and was unable to make a major impact in that time. As always, he attempted to use his dribbling skills and blistering pace to beat his markers but, again, his efforts were contained by the best defensive team in La Liga this season.

Credit must be given to Atletico manager Diego Simeone, a coach who has clearly developed a confident team that base their strength on a robust defensive mentality, but can also trust their more creative players to build lightning fast counterattacking plays whenever possible.

On that note, I'd also like to celebrate Martino's bravery and self-belief. Given the repercussion of the game, fielding Messi and Neymar from the initial whistle would have been the easy way to avoid criticism had the team not achieved a positive result at the end of it. Instead of picking the players based on their salaries and status, El Tata prioritised their current form in training and, once again, stayed true to his ideas.

Key 2: Despite the fact that victory wasn't achieved, it would be fair to say that Barcelona played one of their best games in recent times. The back-line was fairly solid, with an inspired Gerard Pique as a clear defensive leader capable of containing on-form Diego Costa in front of his home crowd.

The midfield was able to make the ball flow fairly quickly despite the relentless pressure applied by their courageous opponents. Sergio Busquets was especially targeted by the hosts, but managed to start the Blaugrana attacking transitions with his usual flair and vision.

Up front, Pedro proved Martino right with his generous runs behind defenders and ability to push forward with the ball whenever Atletico found themselves in Barcelona's defensive third. Unfortunately, there weren't many options for through passing or taking any clear shots but, personally, I believe that was down to well-organised defending from their rivals, rather than any alarming lack of fluency in transition by the Catalans.

Key 3: Barcelona visited one of the two most difficult stadiums in Spanish football and came out unbeaten, forcing their rivals to drop the first two points of the season in front of their home crowd.

Sure, there are some Cules out there who may be devastated about the fact that a chance to distance their team from their closest rivals was missed, but having witnessed the battle at the mighty Calderon stadium, returning back to Catalunya as league leaders and winter champions can be considered a success.

I'm fully aware that the end of the competition is still 19 games away, but I would certainly consider Atletico a true candidate for the title. Their belief, discipline and aggressive style so far has been impressive and, let's face it, is not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

Real Madrid, trailing by six points having played one fewer match, have a brilliant chance to put more pressure on both the Catalans and the Colchoneros if they win against Espanyol on Sunday. Barcelona's city rivals are especially strong at home, but I doubt they have what it takes to deny Carlo Ancelotti's team of such opportunity.

La Liga has come under huge criticism in recent seasons as it had become a predictable two-horse race where, according to most, only the Clasicos actually mattered. Well, not anymore. The fact that Atletico have drawn every one of their three matches against Barcelona in the current season shows that there is a third contender in the mix.

Exciting, yet challenging times for Barcelona and La Liga as a whole.

The Quote: "We wanted to win the match but we can't be reproached for getting this result. It's not a bad thing to close out the first half of the season with 50 points. We didn't concede any counterattacks and our predisposition to recover possession and pressure their key players requires absolute concentration. It's a good point if we keep in mind that we played away to a team that have not conceded any points at home up until today." -- Martino.


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