By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
When Lionel Messi picked up his fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or earlier this year, many observers conceded that runner-up Cristiano Ronaldo was unlucky to be playing in an era dominated by the amazing Argentine forward. Similarly, Atletico Madrid may feel unfortunate to be up against his brilliant Barcelona side in La Liga this term.
Barca dropped two points on Sunday in a tough fixture at Valencia, with the home side holding the Catalans to a 1-1 draw at Mestalla. Later on, Atletico beat Betis to move two points away from third-placed Real Madrid and two closer to the league leaders. And yet they remain well off the pace in La Liga, nine behind Barcelona after 22 games and with seemingly little hope of closing that deficit in the remaining 16 rounds of the championship.
Nevertheless, Atletico’s merits should not go unrecognised in what has been a superb season for Diego Simeone’s side. Sunday’s success represented a 20th consecutive win at the Vicente Calderon – and a 12th in a row at home in La Liga. Up until recently a ground where smaller sides came and took all three points with alarming regularity, Atletico’s home has become a feared fortress over the last year and no side has managed to even claim a draw there this term.
It has not always been pretty. Atletico were forced to grind out a result on Sunday as Diego Costa came off the bench to hit the only goal of the game. Simeone’s side have built their foundations on a strong defence which has conceded only six at home in La Liga this term, and three of those came in their second Calderon clash of the season – a 4-3 win over local rivals Rayo Vallecano in which the locals almost let a 4-0 lead slip in the final minutes.
That lesson was quickly learnt and Atleti’s remarkable record has seen 36 points picked up from 12 home matches, along with 14 from their 10 fixtures on the road.
Visits to both Barcelona and Real Madrid ended in defeats before Christmas, but Atletico have still lost fewer games (four) than any side in La Liga other than the Catalans – beaten only once so far in the Primera Division in 2012-13.
Asked about the champions on Sunday, Barca’s Dani Alves said simply: “People talk about Madrid, but Atletico are our challengers [in La Liga].”
Barca and Madrid are yet to visit the Calderon this term, but will face tough tests against Simeone’s side on the red and white side of the capital. Even if Atleti win both of those matches, however, it is unlikely to be sufficient to claw back the gap on a seemingly unbreakable Barcelona team. But with Madrid faltering, second spot looks more of a reality as the weeks pass, and whatever happens in the final fixtures, Atletico are now finally living up to their label as Spain’s third grande. They are just unfortunate to be up against a Barca side still on course to shatter the points record in La Liga this term.
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