After guiding Atletico Madrid to Europa League and UEFA Super Cup victories last season, interest has piqued in free-scoring striker Radamel Falcao.
The Colombian brought his goal tally to 17 in 12 matches for club and country this season during Sunday's 3-1 victory over Osasuna, leading teammate Joao Miranda to label him one of the world's "top two" players. (Sorry Cristiano, it's Mr. Messi who is also included in that esteemed duo.)
Chelsea are reportedly ready to stump up £46m to release the former Porto and River Plate star from his contract this January, while the only other two clubs who could feasibly afford him––Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain––have also been linked with his services.
While many expect the 26-year-old to leave Spain in the next transfer window, he gave Los Rojiblancos a glimmer of hope in a television interview on Monday evening:
"I am not thinking of leaving at the moment. I never think about it. That wish is not in my thoughts."
Falcao went on to explain that he has three years remaining on his contract, but made it clear he is only thinking about the present. His future, he believes, will be decided by Atletico Madrid "and the corresponding people."
While this statement is far from a solid declaration of loyalty, it suggests the Colombian hitman is quite happy playing the leading role at the Vicente Calderon.
If he does decide to stay for the remainder of the season, and his current electric form persists, Atletico could pose a serious threat to the La Liga duopoly held by Barcelona and Real Madrid. Equally, a title challenge is not entirely out of the question.
Atletico are in rude health, having won their past eight league games. In four of those matches, Falcao has contributed the winning goal. They are on a run of 11 straight wins including their Europa League campaign, and have not been beaten in the past 22 games.
For their troubles, Diego Simeone's men are joint leaders of La Liga, enjoying an eight-point advantage over their Madrid rivals. If they can maintain distance between themselves and their celebrated neighbors, they will be able to break up the 'Big Two' for the first time since 2007/08.
The red and whites will no doubt be encouraged by the injury crises being suffered a few miles down the road. Jose Mourinho had a full squad to pick from against Barcelona a few weeks ago, but with no first-choice left-backs available, the Special One has recently been forced to employ Michael Essien in that position.
Yet even with injury problems at the Bernabeu, Los Blancos have more strength in depth than Atletico, which will prove indispensable as the season wears on. After all, it is very hard to imagine a side of Real Madrid's calibre languishing in fourth position beyond November.
Equally, Atletico do not possess the quality across the field that Barcelona do, nor the experience of handling European and domestic campaigns while mounting a title challenge. To finish above the Catalans would almost certainly require an almighty feat of failure from Tito Vilanova's men.
Ateltico's biggest frailty going forward may be their reliance on one man. To be fair, all three teams lean heavily on a single star player, but one gets the impression that Barcelona and Real Madrid could still bring home three points without Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, respectively. Take Falcao out of the mixer at Atletico, and the team becomes impotent: behind Falcao's ten league goals this season, the next highest scorer is Raul Garcia with three.
If Atletico Madrid part with Falcao in January, their chances of breaking Barcelona and Real Madrid's dominance will become slim. If they can keep the mighty Colombian, however, there may be an extra nag in La Liga's two-horse race next May.