5 Things We Learned from Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid
Barcelona's victory over Atletico Madrid was far from unexpected; La Liga may not be an entirely two-horse race this season, but there is still more than a nose between the aspirations of Diego Simeone's outsiders and Tito Vilanova's thoroughbreds.
Due to Atletico's form against the also-rans and Real's failure to clear the kind of obstacles it would have cantered over last season, Xavi's assertion that Atletico will challenge until the end may ring true.
But the chasing pack have a lot of work to do to stop the Barcelona juggernaut from completing an unbeaten season.
Tito's Record Run
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Not many people thought that Tito Vilanova would be able to simply pick up where Pep Guardiola left off.
They were right, in a way. The former assistant to the Barcelona boss, who changed the way the game is played, has taken what he was given and made it even better.
Unbeaten in the league so far this season, with just the one tie against Real Madrid blemishing his copy book, Vilanova has emphatically surpassed the finest start to a Liga campaign achieved by Radomir Antic's Real Madrid in 1991-92—12 wins and a tie.
Against, Atletico Barcelona went behind but failed to panic as Jose Mourinho's Real has done this season in similar positions. Despite a worthy combatant in Diego Simeone's side, Barcelona stayed true to its template and passed its way out of trouble.
Vilanova also showed the granite streak in his otherwise affable nature by not giving in to calls for David Villa's inclusion from the outset.
The Barcelona coach's mantra seems to be: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And Barcelona doesn't need a lot of fixing.
Vilanova's first real managerial test will come in the January transfer window.
The Tiger Doesn't Fear the Big Stage
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It took Cristiano Ronaldo until April 2011 to score against Barcelona after signing for Real in the summer of 2009.
Radamel Falcao was isolated in Atletico's Bernabeu washout by a forced tactical switch; Filipe Luis was injured during training that morning, forcing Simeone to abandon his usual formation.
In Camp Nou Sunday, Falcao scored a wonderful opener, to add to the goal he bagged in the 1-2 loss at the Calderon last February.
Add to the goals he has scored in the Europa League final and the European Supercup this year, and it is clear Falcao is not a player to react to the opposition's fans' whip and chair.
If, and it is a big if, Atletico can hold him until the end of the season, Champions League qualification is a formality. If not, anything could happen to the combustible Rojiblancos, whose coach is also attracting covetous eyes from West London.
Glory is always over the next horizon for Atletico, but it is the only team in La Liga that would knowingly trip over the same rock twice while trying to get there (a Spanish saying, roughly translated).
Falcao is destined for greatness. Atletico is skint and is not. Do the math (an American saying, apparently).
Simeone Needs to Splash a Little Cash
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In summer transfer business, Atletico inexplicably coined almost 20 million euros by shifting Eduardo Salvio to Benfica and Alvaro Dominguez to Borussia Monchengladbach.
It reinvested this trove in Argentinean stopped Cata Diaz, signed from Getafe for exactly a 20th of that amount.
Since then, the Ironman has made a grand total of four Liga appearances, two of them against Real Madrid and Barcelona.
With left-sided defenders in his ranks in the shape of Domingo Cisma and Silvio Pereira, why does Simeone insist on throwing the big man into the big frays?
Diaz can stop a player of superior skill, as he did with Angel di Maria in the Bernabeu, but he stifles the supply line down Atletico's profitable left side as he does so. Hence Falcao disappeared in the second half after Diaz replaced Filipe Luis.
Atletico is broke and owes the taxman somewhere in the region of quarter of a billion euros.
Still, for five or six million surely it can lure a better stop-gap option than El Cata to the Calderon?
Barça's Bench Is Not for Warming
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On the back burner for Barcelona was perhaps the strongest bench in the league.
Its composition changes with circumstance, but at a conservative estimate there was more than 100 million euros' worth of backup talent sitting in the dugout in Camp Nou.
Alex Song may have known what he was getting into when he signed from Arsenal, but the likes of David Villa, Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano have some serious thinking time on their hands if Vilanova's side doesn't have any serious injury worries this season.
Whatever Barcelona needs to strengthen, if indeed it can, needs to be facilitated by some backside space being made available. Expect an Eto'o moment or two in the next couple of months.
One Goal Down? Don't Get Downhearted
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When Leo Messi robbed Diego Godin on the edge of the Atletico area and chipped Thibaut Courtois for Barcelona's fourth, Atletico had already practically given up.
The Argentinean maestro came into his own in the second period, just as Falcao's supply line was cut off. He may have been anonymous by his own high standards when Barcelona was under the cosh, but when a game needs finishing, there is nobody you'd rather have on your side than Messi.
He never rests. He never lets defenders rest. When Godin thought he'd try a nonchalant layoff in his own area, Messi was there to pounce.
But before that, Adriano and Busquets, hardly the most prolific of Barcelona's goal scorers, had chipped in.
This is no one-man team; far from it. But it is because of one man that this team already has the league title in the bag before Santa has set off on his rounds.
Messi has scored twice in each of his last six Liga outings. He's on 36 for 2012-13 already.
He's less playable than Slade at the moment. Merry Christmas.