After the midweek King's Cup fixtures, attention once again turns to league business as the calendar winds down toward the winter break.
The Professional Football League elected a couple of weeks ago to postpone the second leg matches of the domestic knock-out competition until January so there are now just two games left before 2013 arrives — unless the Mayan prediction is accurate of course, in which case just the one.
If Armageddon is to descend in a week's time, it is just as well the LFP fixture computer churned out Atlético's trip to Barcelona before the end of days; nobody wants to miss this one. Leo Messi and Radamel Falcao are the two most in-form players in Spain — if not the world — at the moment and the meeting between red-and-white and claret-and-blue always augurs goals.
However, on recent results few outside the ancient civilization that has our number would fancy a punt on the visitor. Atlético has been beaten in each of the last four fixtures between the two sides, and Barcelona hasn't been beaten at all since the season began. Not since 2005-06 has Atlético nicked three points from Camp Nou, but Falcao's five-goal haul against Deportivo last week showed the Colombian at his most voracious — he basically forgot he had a team and went for it alone. Barça will need to be on its guard.
Only five games in the history of the fixture have ended goalless. The last time both sides canceled each other out at Camp Nou was in 1972-73. In Falcao and Messi, the league's two most lethal marksmen will be on the field. The chance of a spot of rain will also add an element of chaos, disrupt Barcelona's slick passing game and lend to the swift attacking style of Atlético.
We have been talking for 10 years about how to stop Messi. With the ball at his feet he’s unstoppable"
Not since stitches were removed from footballs weighing half a ton when wet have the two sides met as the first and second placed sides in La Liga. Atlético is five points clear of Real, which will be hoping that its city neighbor can score a win for its own fading title hopes; José Mourinho's team is 11 points adrift of the leader.
"[Atlético coach Diego] Simeone has drummed into us the debt we owe after losing to Real," said club captain Gabi. "Winning in the Camp Nou will be very difficult. We have been talking for 10 years about how to stop Messi. With the ball at his feet he's unstoppable. We have to be tight at the back so he doesn't get the chance for a one-on-one. Winning the game would give us 40 points already. We've never done that before, so we're going there with the intention of beating them."
"Atlético will be a title rival until the end of the season," said Barcelona midfielder Xavi. "They haven't slipped up much and they know what they're doing. Their coach works very well and they have a player, Falcao, who can make all the difference up front."
Real, meanwhile, hosts Espanyol at the Bernabéu as it attempts to keep up in the unexpected three-way hunt for the Liga trophy. Mourinho's team has already lost three matches in the league this season but is unbeaten at the Bernabéu, conceding just three goals in seven games.
It is hard to see Espanyol altering these statistics. Second from bottom with just two wins all season, the Catalan club is in a transition period under new coach Javier Aguirre and is desperately short of goals. However, it is unbeaten so far under the Mexican schemer and was desperately unlucky to concede an injury-time goal against Sevilla last weekend, denying it three points.
"We won't park the bus," said Espanyol back-up keeper Kiko Casilla, who spent seven years in Real's youth system. "We're working on exploiting the few weaknesses they have. We're not going there to be victims."