With nine games gone in La Liga, just three points separate Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid at the table's summit.
It did stand at five points until Barca and Atleti relinquished their perfect records this past weekend against Osasuna and Espanyol, respectively.
Back in August, Atletico manager Diego Simeone told AS that there was no chance of his side competing in any sort of title race:
Madrid and Barcelona play in a different league, and this is a boring championship. We'll have to wait until there is a change in the share of television revenue, because this is a two-team league.
Things look different now, though, and while his point stands about the financial gap between his side and the big two, Los Rojiblancos have a strength about them which the other two don't necessarily boast.
Simeone took charge of his 100th game at the weekend—they've won the Europe League, UEFA Super Cup and Copa del Rey in that time—and that continuity is reflected in their performances.
Sid Lowe of The Guardian says they are "a side who know exactly what they are doing: their identity is clear, and they believe in it."
|La Liga table|
|2. Atletico Madrid||9||8-0-1||+14||24|
|3. Real Madrid||9||7-1-1||+10||22|
That identity isn't necessarily to entertain either; it's to be functional, to defend well and to win football matches.
It works too.
There's no doubting—despite the goals of Diego Costa this season—that their strength lies in defending.
Miranda and Diego Godin are arguably Spain's best defensive partnership, Belgian Toby Alderweireld is waiting in the wings and left-back Filipe Luis is highly underrated.
Behind them stands the looming figure of Thibaut Courtois, who's admitted he's in the top five goalkeepers in the world, via ESPNFC—that might be too modest, though.
Then in front of them, more often than not, are Gabi and Mario Suarez. Neither are going to be heralded on the same level as Xavi Hernandez or create as much as Luka Modric, but both are perfect in El Cholo's system.
The worry is that when the going gets tough, can Atleti be creative enough?
After falling to a 1-0 defeat against Espanyol at the weekend, the answer would appear to be that they can't.
Perhaps, that's why they're constantly linked with a January swoop for Diego, according to football-espana.net.
Across town at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid can't boast the same continuity at the moment.
They have a new manager, new players and are trying to adjust to a new style as the look to slide from the Jose Mourinho era into the Carlo Ancelotti one—it's fair to say it's still coming together.
Sans Xabi Alonso, Ancelotti has struggled to find his favourite pairing in midfield, rotating between Modric, Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi.
Meanwhile, they're still waiting to see the fitness, let alone the exploits, of Gareth Bale, while Guillem Balague suggested on B/R yesterday that they still don't have the right striker to suit their needs.
They look solid enough defensively, though. The return of Raphael Varane and Marcelo adds to the competition for places, and it's in other areas where Los Blancos are showing the need for some imagination.
That said, a win at Camp Nou this weekend could change the mindset of the squad after some testing results in recent weeks.
To win in Barcelona on Saturday, they may look to exploit Barca's weaknesses: namely set pieces.
Sevilla and Valencia, before ultimately losing, both caused them problems in the air—Madrid should have the personnel to do the same.
It might not be the style Ancelotti wants associated with his Madrid reign, but it could buy him—and his squad—some more time as they try to make the transition.
If they try to keep the ball against Barcelona, they could get taken apart by Barcelona's obvious strengths.
Despite their need for a new central defender, an ageing Xavi Hernandez and a half-fit Lionel Messi, La Blaugrana remain the best passing team in the world when they are at their bewildering best.
Like Ancelotti, though, new manager Gerardo Martino is trying to embed new styles and tactics into his Barca side.
Gerard Pique is one of a number players who have welcomed the slight change in philosophy—or at least the adding of strings to Barca's bow. Talking to Gazzetta dello Sport he said:
We've had a number of years with homegrown coaches in charge, first Pep and then Tito, and we tended to exaggerate our style of play to the point where we were almost slaves to it.
With a little bit of luck, the variable strengths and weaknesses of the three sides could lead to La Liga's most enthralling title race in recent years—everyone's got their fingers crossed.
It's certainly not unreasonable to suggest Atleti's solidity and consistency could at last wrestle the title away from the apex predators.
However, it still remains much more likely that the strength and pace of Ronaldo and Bale or Messi and his pass masters will clinch the championship come May.
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