Very often Madrid is the setting for Spain’s biggest game of the season. And very often that game tends to be the ‘Clasico’ between Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the times they are a’changin. It wasn’t Real’s Bernabeu, it was their poor local rivals Atletico Madrid’s Estadio Vicente Calderon that staged the biggest game of the Liga season yet. Winter champions they may be, but Barcelona aren’t alone in their race to the summit. Diego Simeone’s Atletico de Madrid gave a very good account of themselves in the fiercely contested game between Spain’s top two, and remain very much in contention for the surprise of the season; only five goals separate the two clubs as the season headed towards the midway point. The game was a fiercely fought affair; very often do you see a Barcelona side drawing blanks. Here we analyze three things on the game.
- Another title on the cards for Barca? Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino has had his fair share of critics on his European bow this season. From flushing out the tiki-taka from the system to having to suffer defensively, ‘El Tata’ has been given a rough ride by the microscopically observant and overtly critical media. But somehow he has managed to make his team somewhat functional, despite the unavailability of key players Messi, Puyol and Xavi at different points of the season. And it has been smooth sailing so far; they have so far avoided banana-skinned matches, carved out a ‘Clasico’ win and somehow managed to hold on last night in a tense affair. Atleti have still Nou Camp on their fixture list, and the title is now Barca’s to lose. Last season under the ailing Tito Vilanova too, Barca were far from their best but still managed to win the title in style. This year too, they have stuttered at times, and in the absence of Messi and Neymar (from the start, that is) still managed to monopolize possession and were fairly comfortable. If they can maintain their composure over the course of the season, we could see a back-to-back Barca title triumph come May.
- Atletico might live to rue their missed chance Los Colchoneros are still unbeaten at home this season, a proud record for both the players and the fans. But they could’ve made top spot their own with a win last night. Diego Simeone continuously side-steps questions about his team’s ambitions this season, but with Atleti keeping pace with the league leaders, he might not be able to dodge such questions for too long. The Rojiblancos showed marginally more ambition than their Catalan counterparts, but were unable to break down a Barcelona side who had the ever-lunging Mascherano at the back. Diego Costa remains one of the foremost goal-getters in the league this season, but he somehow contrived to leave his shooting boots in the locker room. Atletico chased Barca for most parts, but looked dangerous when they had their moments. How big a miss this was against a far from full strength Barca is the big question now. How Atleti could live to rue their missed opportunity with the reverse fixture at the Nou Camp awaiting will be answered in the next few months.
- What it means for the other team, Real Madrid? Real Madrid can close the gap on both teams on Sunday as they travel to the Cornella El Prat in Espanyol. La Real have been chasing the pace-setters since eternity, and a win tonight could close the gap to just three points with a home ‘Clasico’ still remaining. They have been doing their bit under the sun, behind the glory-boys. And with strength of squad as theirs, you couldn’t rule them out of the title race yet. Carlo Ancelotti specializes in winning leagues, and he would’ve been happy to accept a three point deficit at the halfway point had he been told before the season started. Cristiano Ronaldo is back from his minor layoff, so is Gareth Bale, and if Real Madrid can keep their unit fit and happy till the end of the season, we could see a battle never before seen in Spain in the recent past. A three horse race in these parts of the world is like a fish in a shallow pond; and this comes as a pleasant surprise at a time when La Liga has been losing its popularity for being a league of only two teams.