By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Not many teams can stop Barcelona from winning three times in a row. Atletico Madrid showed why they are genuine contenders for La Liga by holding the Catalans again on Saturday night - and, in the process, Diego Simeone's side did city rivals Real a huge favour, too.
Carlo Ancelotti's men are now right back in it at the Primera Division's halfway stage, after they won the weekend's other Barcelona-Madrid match-up at Espanyol on Sunday to set up an enthralling three-way race for the title in the second part of the Spanish season.
Madrid's 47 points (10 more than Jose Mourinho's men managed at the same stage last season) represent a remarkable return for Los Blancos considering what was a sticky start to the current campaign, with the team initially struggling to come to terms with Ancelotti's tactics, new signings like Gareth Bale and Asier Illarramendi taking time to settle in and Xabi Alonso absent through injury until October.
Over the course of the campaign so far, Madrid have been well short of the league's leading duo, while they were extremely fortunate to win against Elche, Levante and Valencia.
Victory at Espanyol on Sunday was not entirely convincing either, as Pepe headed the only goal of a forgettable game, but the strength of character to grind out results will please Ancelotti and stand the side in good stead for the testing months ahead. "We knew it was going to be a demanding game, but we won it and that's the most important thing," Pepe said afterwards. And Ancelotti added: "I'm satisfied with the game because we played with good balance and we kept trying to score until the end. Our aim was to get closer [to Barca and Atleti] and we have done that."
Saturday had been all about Atletico - and just as Simeone had said in the build-up to the match, Los Rojiblancos made up in intensity and group effort what they lack in individual quality.
Atletico sought to close the gaps between the lines; Barcelona looked to minimise danger on the break. "It was a game of chess," Simeone said afterwards. "Both of us were looking to impose our strengths and to stop our rival." And in the end, that's exactly what happened as the two teams cancelled each other out, just as they had done in the Spanish Supercopa series back in August.
The first of those meetings was a 1-1 draw at the Vicente Calderon, before a goalless return at Camp Nou saw Gerardo Martino's claim the trophy on away goals. But for a third time in a row on Saturday, Tata's team failed to defeat Atleti. Simeone's side, meanwhile, have edged out Madrid twice in the last 10 months, but are yet to beat Barca.
"We expected a very compact and defensive team," Xavi said afterwards. "They are one of the best teams in Europe and we dominated much of the game. We just couldn't create enough chances." Martino, meanwhile, was content. "We came here to win the match, but a draw is OK," he said. "This game will make us stronger."
|LA LIGA - AS IT STANDS
The result, however, and the manner of the performance by Atletico on Saturday, is likely to make them stronger, too, and proved that this team is the real deal. Title contenders? Why not. With 19 games played, Barca and Atletico are separated by just five goals. At the league's halfway stage, Catalans and Colchoneros both have 50 points, having dropped just five apiece. Meanwhile, Barca have scored 53 and conceded 12, while Atletico have netted 47 and let in only 11.
If the two teams are in a similar position at the end of the season, Barca and Atleti will face off in an electrifying Liga decider at Camp Nou to establish the destiny of the Primera Division trophy. However, Madrid's win on Sunday means it's not all about those two, but now a thrilling three-horse race for the title instead.
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