Leaders stick to guns in stalemate

Gritty Atlético and Barça coaches cancel each other out in table-topping clash

Diego Costa (l) of Atlético Madrid tackles Barcelona's Lionel Messi during Saturday's 0-0 tie at the Calderón.
Diego Costa (l) of Atlético Madrid tackles Barcelona's Lionel Messi during Saturday's 0-0 tie at the Calderón. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno (Getty Images)

While all fans of Spanish soccer tuned in to watch the big Saturday night showdown between the top teams halfway through this Liga season, two Argentinean coaches just carried on doing their thing — equally well it turns out, as the game ended in a goalless tie, meaning both teams have racked up 50 points in identical fashion.

In two years at the Vicente Calderón, Diego Simeone has turned the seemingly eternally chaotic Atlético Madrid into a well-oiled machine, a team where no one stays still for a second and opponents given no quarter. Most wilt under the pressure.

At Barcelona, Tata Martino is doing his best to ensure the team remains competitive at all times by keeping as many squad players involved and creating a less predictable side than the one that had gained all the plaudits but was shown to have lost its edge at the back end of last season when mauled by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. In that vein, Martino left Leo Messi out of the starting lineup at the Calderón, despite the star number 10’s blistering return to action last week after a lengthy injury layoff. Understandable enough given his fitness levels and the stern physical test that Atlético was guaranteed to provide.

Martino has gotten to first base unscathed, with the big pressure of securing those big titles still to come

It was also reasonable that Messi should share the bench with Neymar, the Brazilian barely having played in the last month, while Pedro and Alexis, backed by stand-in forward Cesc Fàbregas, have shown great form in front of goal. This was definitely Martino’s Barça: humble and hardworking. He himself accepted after Saturday’s match that Barça has not “always played great football this season,” but the tests he is preparing the side for are only just starting. How easily, or stylishly, the champion sweeps aside the mid-table chaff is not the coach’s concern; how much fight and flexibility it can muster against the very best in Europe is. According to Barça skipper Xavi, Atlético does now have to be considered “one of the best in Europe.” “They play totally differently to us, but they do it excellently,” the Spain midfield veteran added.

For Atlético, Diego Costa and David Villa worked hard helping out the midfield when the visitor attempted to establish its possession-based game, which meant the best chances were more likely to come from the wings. Indeed, the home team’s best moment and clearest chance both came courtesy of Arda Turan, a dribble in the opening minutes that ended with the ball bouncing clear off Gerard Piqué, and a close-range volley that drew Víctor Valdés into a smart stop in the second half. Despite the fact that Messi was introduced for a battered and bruised Andrés Iniesta at the start of a second period, which at times opened out into a pulsating end-to-end affair, neither keeper can point to any acts of extreme heroism. For Atlético, Thibaut Courtois was there on the one occasion his team really needed him, however, folding his almost two-meter frame quickly down to meet a shot from Messi after Atleti, just for once, had failed to clear the lines efficiently, giving the Argentinean the chance to run at a jumbled defensive line.

In the end, 50 points apiece from the first half of the league season is a satisfying return. For Martino, it means he has gotten to first base unscathed, with the big pressure of securing those big titles still to come.

For Simeone, 50 points bring yet more kudos to a coach who is producing little short of a miracle with limited resources. He won’t admit as much, but he must surely have been hoping for a little more in the home fixture against the champion, perhaps more for the extra jolt of self-belief it would have given his players than the points advantage. “It will be very difficult to get 50 points from the second half of the season,” said club captain Gabi. “But we will try.”

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