When the final whistle sounded at Vicente Calderón Stadium on Saturday, the celebrations spread throughout the crowd of 49,000 because for the first time in 55 weeks league-leading Barcelona had been knocked off the summit of La Liga by Atletico Madrid…technically.
The Atleti had assumed first place in the Spanish Primera Division by defeating a stubborn Levante, 3-2, but were awaiting the result of Barcelona’s match against Getafe on Sunday.
Just under 24 hours later, Barcelona and Getafe kicked off from Coliseum Alfonso Pérez. It only took Getafe ten minutes to take the lead over the Catalan giants, and another four minutes to go two goals up on the league leaders.
Barcelona was playing without Lionel Messi, who has been ruled out until next month with a hamstring injury, as well as Brazilian playmaker Neymar, who was suspended due to an accumulation of yellow cards.
So the Catalan club was on the road and found themselves down two goals during the opening fourteen minutes, while playing without the services of two world class players.
But normal service was resumed as Barcelona forward Pedro pounded in three goals during a torrid eight-minute spell of the first half to send the Catalans into the locker room with a 3-2 lead. When the 26-year-old scored the first of his three goals in the 34th minute, you could hear the tension of the Getafe supporters as they anticipated a Barcelona onslaught. They knew the inevitable was about to happen…and it did.
Barcelona went on to win the match 5-2 and set themselves off into the winter break as league leaders…but only just.
The only thing separating Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga is goal differential. Both clubs are on 46 points after 17 league matches, but Barcelona are a +37 goal differential while Atletico are +35; both clubs are on pace for 100 points in the league.
Atletico’s rise has been well-documented. The club has been amassing trophies over the past few years despite selling off some of their more prized assets to European clubs. This summer’s transfer of Radamel Falcao to Monaco will likely be the last time Atletico loses a major talent to another European club. Los Colchoneros have renewed the contracts of their latest crop of talent through the near future and are joint leaders in Spain. Atletico have also easily qualified for the Last 16 of the Champions League by being one of only three teams to go through the group stages of the competition unbeaten (the other two being Real Madrid and Manchester United).
Los Rojiblancos are a passionate and motivated side who play in front of some of the most loyal supporters in all of European football. Atletico feed off of their manager Diego Simeone’s focus and intensity. The Argentinian tactician, who dresses for each match in all-black attire, has choreographed a well-organized squad who execute to near-perfection with an unrelenting drive. The players and manager approach each game with a single-mindedness rarely seen; they each wear their emotions on their sleeves and at times appear to be ready for a fight. There is a bond between the Atleti’s players and manager that is the envy of many professional sports teams. They all want to work for each other in order to reach an ultimate goal. Atletico Madrid has a vision for Spanish and European glory; and every person in and around the club firmly believes this team can accomplish all of that this season.
On the other hand is Barcelona. The Catalan club has been the face of La Liga for a number of years and (even when they haven’t won a European Cup) are considered the best team in the world. Despite rotating managers, Barcelona has maintained their hold on the Spanish top spot. Their roster is still littered by a who’s-who of world football: Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets…the list goes on and on. They are an offensive juggernaut and they have been for years.
But perhaps cracks are starting to form from inside of the club.
There appears to be strong tension between Lionel Messi and Barcelona director Javier Faus. When asked about Messi’s desire for a contract renewal in January, Faus had this to say: “There is no need to renew this gentleman’s contract every six months.” That statement has many Barcelona fans concerned about the relationship between the club’s management and their marquee player.
That fear was inflamed when the Argentine international responded this week. Messi told Catalan radio: “Barcelona is the best club in the world and should be represented by the best board members, too. Senor Faus is someone who doesn’t know anything about football and wants to manage Barcelona like a business, which it is not. I would remind him that neither I nor anyone from my camp has asked for any wage increase and he knows that very well.”
For the first time in recent memory, things aren’t as rosy within the Barcelona family. That’s why the fiery passion and unity displayed by Atletico Madrid may be happening at the perfect time.
But for now, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are level on points; only separated by goal differential heading into the two-week break. Both clubs are eight points ahead of third place Real Madrid, but Los Galacticos still have a game in-hand against Valencia before the break.
When Barcelona and Atletico Madrid return to league action, they will play one contest each before facing off against one another on January 11th in Madrid.
That encounter, while still very early in the season, will be ’Must See TV’. It will be the reigning champions of Spain (and arguably the best team in Europe over recent years) defending their crown against the young upstarts who appear to be on the verge of building their own dynasty.
Things have gotten really interesting in La Liga.
Too bad the winter break will postpone the outcome of this important head-to-head clash at the top of the Spanish table. We’ll just have to be patient and enjoy the build-up over the next few weeks.