Barcelona extended their lead at the top of La Liga to nine points on Sunday with a stunning 4-1 victory over nearest rivals Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou.
Radamel Falcao opened the scoring with a sublime solo effort just after the half-hour mark, but Adriano levelled matters five minutes later with an equally spectacular strike before Sergio Busquets put the hosts ahead with cool finish just before the break.
Lionel Messi then struck twice during the second half to take his tally for the calendar year to a staggering 90 goals, thus sealing a resounding win which put their visitors very much in their place.
It was first vs second in Catalunya. Messi vs Falcao. But Barcelona glided to victory through a depressing air of predictability. On Saturday, Tito Vilanova said that in any other league, Atletico would be top. But this isn’t any other league. And as the gap at the top grows, that between Atleti and their Madrid rivals continues to diminish.
As ever, Diego Simeone’s side were rigid and compact, intent on absorbing pressure and hitting their hosts on the counter. And Falcao very nearly gave them a shock lead inside the first 10 minutes, but saw his wonderfully flicked header bounce back off the inside of Victo Valdes’ post. Hearts were in Barca mouths again when Colombian raced clear of Carles Puyol after 23 minutes overstretching to drag his shot wide.
Falcao rarely misses – his 16 league goals prior to this evening had arrived via just 52 shots this season. He was never going to miss another, and he opened the scoring with a wonderful goal after half an hour. When Messi lost possession in midfield, Falcao pulled square to receive a short pass. His first touch took him away from Busquets on the halfway line before racing clear to delicately lift his left-footed finish over Valdes.
Barca had failed to carve out a single chance by then, their only two efforts on goal arriving as Messi sent one free kick into the wall and another into the stands. Atleti remained compact; Barca kept probing, waiting for you know who to step up.
But instead it was Adriano who provided a moment of genius. The Brazilian, shifted over to right-back with Dani Alves having just recovered from injury, drew the Blaugrana level with solo effort of his own just five minutes later, cutting inside from the right and smashing his curling shot in off the under side of Thibaut Courtois’ crossbar from the edge of the box.
The pendulum swung from that point, and Barca went ahead right on the stroke of half-time when Pique nodded a corner back across goal to Busquets. The Barca midfielder’s spatial awareness is an attribute often overlooked, and it was evident as he took a touch on the edge of the six-yard box before ducking inside Mario Suarez and firing past Courtois.
Messi had been oddly quiet for almost an hour, but the inevitable arrived after 57 minutes when he skipped around Juanfran to curl his shot into the bottom corner from 18 yards for his 89th goal of 2012.
Messi then grabbed his 34th of the season to round off the scoring with four minutes remaining after collecting Diego Godin’s awful attempt at a back heel inside in his own area to lift the ball over Courtois from close range.
Atletico failed to create a chance in the second period and will be disappointed with their performance after such a promising start.
Yet this defeat should take nothing away from the job Diego Simeone has done since arriving in Madrid. Atleti remain a work in progress – a considerable amount of which has been made over the first half of the La Liga season. And they will end the year rightly positioned as the second best team in the country.
For Barcelona, this was a good end to a fabulous first half of life under Tito at Camp Nou, with 15 wins and a one draw during what has been the best start to a La Liga season by any side ever.
You get the feeling the New Year may well bring more of the same for both sides.