This wasn't just another match. This was supposed to be a showdown.
And it didn't just turn into another Barcelona beatdown. This was a statement of spine-chilling intensity.
Silly us. We thought this was just a showcase for superstar strikers.
Barcelona came from a goal behind to defeat Atletico Madrid 4-1 on Sunday night at the Camp Nou in a top-of-the-table La Liga showdown. In victory, Barca opened up a nine-point lead as Lionel Messi outdueled Radamel Falcao and notched his 89th and 90th goals of the year.
That was the party line, at least. Somewhere among the debris of another dismembered domestic rival, there are big implications about Barcelona and the lifespan of the La Liga title race.
No opposing striker was going to upstage Messi on this night. Not even El Tigre, Atletico's brilliant talisman, the man who has made the Europa League his personal playground the last two seasons with his fearsome pace and stunning cunning.
We already knew that, deep down at least. Messi is one of a kind and, on current form, beyond the threat of being shown up. Falcao tried his best, no doubt, and he rewarded Atletico's early superiority with a blisteringly brilliant goal in the 31st minute.
Receiving the ball at midfield, Falcao blew past Sergio Busquets with a clever first touch and instantly set sight on goal. After covering the space between the center circle and Barcelona's box in what seemed like half a second, the Colombian chipped cheekily over Victor Valdes and peeled away in richly deserved glee.
But like we said, no opposing striker was going to show up Messi on this night. One of his teammates had that covered.
Sure, Messi bagged his customary brace. The first was even the definition of class. But as improbable as it sounds, the spotlight wasn't Messi's this time. This time, it belonged to a light-scoring right-back.
He goes by the name Adriano, and he scored a peach of an equalizer five minutes after Falcao's opener. Cutting in from the right, the Brazilian etched a circle around the corner of the box, worked the ball onto his left foot and bent a beautiful rainbow into the top corner past the helpless Thibaut Courtois.
In a match featuring two of the world's hottest strikers, it was the goal of the night by some distance. More pertinently, though, it turned the match on its head. Until that point, Atletico had outplayed Barca and Falcao had left Messi in his dust. After it, Barcelona dominated—and Messi got his goals.
And so, Barca's lead suddenly stands at nine points and the La Liga title race is looking like a runaway train. And the kicker is this: For once at least, Messi wasn't the decisive factor. The Argentine scored twice, but both goals came after Barca had taken a 2-1 halftime lead despite being largely outplayed until that point.
Is the La Liga title race already over?
That Messi scored twice and swatted aside Falcao's claim to the striking throne only reinforces what we already know about the best player in the world. That one of his teammates upstaged him anyway shows why the La Liga title race already breathes on life support a week ahead of Christmas.
In other words, while Messi remains unreal, Barca have more than enough collective talent to beat all comers in Spain. Adriano was just the latest to prove his worth. Others have come before and others will follow.
This is the best Atletico team since the double-winning 1996 campaign. Behind the brilliance of Falcao and management of Diego Simeone, Atletico forced their way into the Barca-Real duopoly and, until Sunday at least, breathed new life into the title race the.
But on Sunday, the best Atletico team since 1996—and the world's best striker not named Messi—were nowhere near good enough to knock Barca off their perch.
And this time, Messi's goals were little more than insurance.