All season, it's been impossible to separate Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. They've chugged along at the top of the table, trading blow for blow, and when they met in the Copa del Rey, they exchanged a pair of draws and Barcelona went through only on away goals. They couldn't be separated on Saturday either, a tight goalless draw leaving Barcelona top of La Liga at the halfway point by virtue of having a goal difference five better than that of Atlético.
Barcelona, as had been widely anticipated, dominated possession but they struggled to make headway in a game of ferocious intensity. One of the feature s of this season, and not just in La Liga, has been the tentative return of 4-4-2 at the highest level, with variations of the formation being used by Paris St-Germain and Manchester City as well as Atlético. The negative of the system, when playing against a 4-3-3 like Barcelona's, is that the team playing 4-4-2 is outnumbered three-to-two in the center of the pitch. That makes it almost impossible to control possession, but that's not an issue for Atlético, which is quite happy to play reactively -- sitting back, soaking up pressure and looking to spring forward on the break. When it does break, using the technical ability of the two wide midfielders Arda Turan and Koke, it has the advantage of two central strikers (David Villa and Diego Costa) looking to capitalize on any opportunity that may occur.
In games when Atlético is on top, the shape often appears as a 4-2-2-2, but against Barcelona, it was a clear 4-4-2, albeit with Koke and Arda narrower than would be orthodox. Although Atlético is keen to press when it can, if possession is not regained quickly it settles back, forming two compact banks of four. Whatever the other shortcomings of 4-4-2, it does allow sides rapidly to form that shape, which remains, as it has been for almost half a century, the securest form of defense.
That is one of Atlético's great strengths, something attested to by the fact it has conceded only 11 goals in the opening half of the season. The danger of settling back into the two banks of four is that it can leave the front two isolated, but both Villa and Diego Costa worked extraordinarily hard, tracking back, hounding Barça when it had the ball, never letting it settle. There was never a time when Barça was able to pass the ball unpressured in front of Atlético, easing and probing for an opening: it always had to work to retain possession.
Even when Lionel Messi came off the bench at half-time, Atlético was able to restrict the supply to him, and one dribble, one shot and one header aside, he posed little threat -- which is to say, more than anybody else, but little by his elevated standards. Most of the chances fell largely to Atlético, particularly after half-time. Arda was the key presence, with his second-minute dribble ending with a deflected cross an early indication of the danger he would present. It was his smart pass that teed up a chance that Diego Costa dragged 13 minutes into the second half and then it was his falling volley that Victor Valdes did well to hold.
The only other chance Atlético created came from a 28th-minute corner, when Miranda won a flick at the near post and Diego Costa, sliding in at the back, couldn't turn the ball in. Set plays had seemed an area in which Atlétic might threaten Barcelona given the extra height in its side, but this was further evidence of Barcelona's largely unacknowledged improvement in that department. Whatever else Gerardo Martino has done since taking over in the summer, he has made Barcelona better at defending set-plays, even if it still wins fewer aerial battles than any other side in La Liga. What aerial ability it has is largely located in Gerard Pique who, in the way he handled Diego Costa, was probably Barcelona's outstanding player.
The draw ended Atlético's 100 per cent home record, and there must be a thought that if it was going to stay the course and really challenge for the title, it needed to gain an advantage over Barcelona now. It doesn't have the depth of squad of the two Spanish giants, and that could make it susceptible to injuries as the season goes on. Diego Simeone, though, seemed content enough at the end and, from his point of view, simply staying in the fight is probably target enough. And if Atlético is fortunate with injuries, it may yet be that the return match at the Camp Nou on the final day of the season is decisive in the title race.