A few hours before Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi stole your attention with their epic Ballon d'Or duel at the Nou Camp on Sunday night, a new and unexpected twist in the race for La Liga quietly unfolded some 300 miles away in Madrid.
A new threat to the dominance of Spain’s top two teams emerged, led by a striker with his eyes on the Pichichi top-goalscorer trophy.
Atletico Madrid defeated Malaga at the Vicente Calderon stadium, marking their sixth consecutive league win. More significantly, the 2-1 victory placed them level on points with Barcelona at the top of the Spanish Primera and eight points clear of Jose Mourinho's men.
As usual, La Liga is a fierce race between Barcelona and Madrid, but right now, it's the other Madrid side leading the charge.
The man responsible for bringing Los Rojiblancos out of the shadow of their celebrated neighbors is undoubtedly Radamel Falcao, the Colombian striker whose 47 goals since arriving in Spain in the summer of 2011 have made his €40m fee look like a steal.
Following his brace on Sunday, the 26-year-old now boasts eight goals in this campaign, the same impressive tally as Messi and Ronaldo.
So, could "El Tigre" bring the Pichichi to Atletico, just like fellow South American Diego Forlan did in 2008-09? He told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that he is certainly relishing the prospect:
"Everything's still very close, but I am enjoying fighting with them for the top-scorer title. I'm already proud to have been ahead of them at some point this season. I want to replicate last year's goalscoring numbers.”
Matching his output of 24 league goals last season is a fine ambition, but it’s important to remember that this is less than half the record-breaking figure that Leo Messi put away, and considerably less than his hair-gel-loving counterpart on the other side of town. In fact, a tally of 24 goals hasn’t been good enough for the top-scorer accolade for nine years, when the Brazilian Ronaldo fought off competition from Julio Baptista and a young Atletico starlet named Fernando Torres.
In the spirit of reality checks, Falcao himself has also pooh-poohed the idea that Atletico could become the first side to break Barca and Real’s title dominance since Valencia bucked the trend in 2003-04. “The Champions League is our objective,” he said as a means of dismissing the prospect of toppling Spain’s most powerful sides.
La Liga is only seven games old, and the bookmakers are–quiet rightly–remaining resilient in giving Atletico Madrid long odds for an upset. But even though "squeeky bum time" is a long way away, Diego Simeone’s squad could realistically earn a Champions League berth.
This aspiration, however, may depend on whether El Tigre is poached by a certain Italian hunter.
Roberto Mancini was watching Falcao’s performance against Malaga, fueling press speculation that the £45m striker could imminently trade the sunny climes of Madrid for the drizzly grey skies of Manchester.
Mancini may have been at the game keeping tabs on his on-loan striker Roque Santa Cruz–and he claims to have been in Spain simply to watch his son play in Valladolid–but it can only be a matter of time before Falcao’s services are acquired by a team who can offer a fatter paycheck.
The fact that the Colombian has publicly expressed an interest in playing Premier League football will surely have set alarm bells ringing at the Vicente Calderon.
For now though, Los Colchoneros’ faithful will be basking in the glory of the points-advantage they have created over their big-spending neighbors, and hoping that El Tigre isn’t set free in the January transfer window.
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