There is a fascination with the clasico in Spain. Every meeting of Barcelona and Real Madrid is preceded by a week of preview slots on television and inexorable analysis in newspapers. Last time around, Marca TV had a 24-hour non-stop countdown-to-kick-off show. Opium for the masses.
But a game that quietly comes around twice a year regularly out-classes the clasico.
For a real game of football, look no further than Atletico versus Barcelona. This year, there is the added excitement of seeing La Liga's most prolific marksmen square off at the peak of their powers.
Leo Messi, as you might have seen, broke Gerd Muller's 1972 record for goals in a calendar year last Sunday. The Flea then added a couple more against Cordoba on Wednesday night to take his tally to 88.
Radamel Falcao, Atletico's Colombian goal machine, whacked five past Deportivo at the weekend. The last time anybody managed that in La Liga was 2002, when Fernando Morientes gave Las Palmas a personal manita.
Messi and Falcao are hugely different players. The Argentinean uses weaving runs and balance to confound his opponents. Falcao is a penalty area matador—acrobatic and lethal. Both are single-minded, although Messi does a better job of disguising it. Falcao laps up the limelight and the adulation, as he did against Deportivo.
Atletico has always done a nice line in exceptional Latin Amercian front players, from Jose Eulogio Garate through Hugo Sanchez to Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero. It has also traditionally had a comical back line, something Diego Simeone has now rectified.
However, in these encounters, goals are guaranteed. The usual heady bouquet of optimism in southern Madrid before the last match in Catalonia swiftly turned sour. Atletico lost 5-0 at Camp Nou, with Messi bagging a hat trick. In the same fixture the year before, it was 3-0, with the Argentinean bagging the lot.
The last match at the Calderon was closer, 2-1, but a second of genius from a free-kick saw Messi break red-and-white hearts yet again. Barcelona has won the last four matches between the two sides.
But it has not always been thus. In the last 10 seasons in the league, Barcelona has won the fixture nine times to Atletico's seven, with four ties.
Until last season's match at the Calderon, Atletico had won three on the trot, including this 4-3 thriller in 2009. A year earlier Barcelona left the capital empty handed again on the back of a 4-2 loss.
Sandwiched between Atletico's triumphs were unpalatable 6-1 and 5-2 thrashings up north.
The last time Atletico won in Catalonia was 2005-06, a 3-1 victory with a brace from some lad called Torres. This was the period before Messi. Henrik Larsson scored the home side's consolation.
It is never accurate to say the playing field is level between the two, especially with Messi in rampant form and home advantage. But Falcao—The Tiger—is hungry, too, and will be eager to feed after a lackluster display in the Bernabeu a couple of weeks ago. This is the stage the Colombian craves.
Every time Falcao turns in a performance like those against Chelsea, Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final or Sunday's recital, his value skyrockets.
Messi is a the fastest gun in La Liga, hitting the net every 59 minutes so far this season. But Falcao is the deadliest, scoring once in every three attempts. The Argentinean has touched the ball 1,136 times in the league—the Colombian, 450. Cristiano Ronaldo has hit 108 shots on goal to Falcao's 52 and has scored three fewer than the Colombian's 16.
Falcao was withdrawn from the squad to play Getafe in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday night with a slight muscle tweak. He is expected to be fit for Sunday, though. Messi, who thought he popped his knee last week, will be raring to go as he targets 90 goals in a season.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said this week that La Liga is lucky to have Messi, Ronaldo and Falcao. It most certainly is. It is also fortunate to have rivalries that produce games like Atletico and Barcelona do. Expect more of the same on Sunday.