La Liga has, for the most part, been a two-horse race. Barcelona and Real Madrid have battled each other for years at the peak of Spanish football, even stretching their dominance to European competition, with the Catalans claiming the Champions League trophy three times since 2006.
It comes as no surprise, then, to see Barcelona sat on top of the pile as we start 2014, but there is now a new threat in Spain, and it comes in the form of Real Madrid's city neighbours.
Atletico Madrid have been superb this season, keeping up with the ferocious pace of Barca and stretching a five-point lead over their city rivals, Real. Atletico have notched up 49 points, the same as the reigning champions have collected, and they face each other at the Vicente Calderon this weekend.
Diego Costa has been in stunning form this season, scoring 19 goals—only Cristiano Ronaldo has more in La Liga with 20. In fact, only Luis Suarez (20) and Ronaldo have more goals in Europe, domestically, than Costa. Ronaldo's goals have come from 17 matches, compared to Costa's 18 matches.
The Brazilian-born Spaniard will be key for the remainder of the season. With many top clubs around Europe said to be interested in tempting Costa away from Spain this month—this report by Jack Wilson in the Mirror claims some of the EPL's giants are monitoring the player—Atletico will do well to keep hold of their star striker.
Costa has scored 38.8 percent of his chances this season, which is incredible given the amount of chances he has. Ronaldo, on the other hand, has scored 20.6 percent of his chances but that is purely down to the fact that he is a serial-shooter and will have a pop at goal if given a yard of space.
Barcelona's key man, Lionel Messi, has been missing for quite a while with injury but is set to return to first-team action this week, just in time for the big match with Atletico. Due to his injury, causing him to miss five Liga matches in a row, Messi has only scored eight goals—three fewer than Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. However, his return to the side will give them a much-needed boost ahead of the title run-in, and a victory over Atletico, helped along by Messi, would grant them a huge three points.
Costa has the best shot accuracy out of the trio with 71 percent, Messi is slightly behind with 70 percent while Ronaldo sits third having hit 59 percent of his shots on target.
All three players are superb when it comes to scoring, but chance creation is also imperative for a top player in the modern game. Using statistics from Squawka, Messi has completed 19 key passes from his 11 games, placing him third at Barcelona.
Diego Costa has completed 28 key passes, putting him second at Atletico, behind Koke (41) while Ronaldo is way down in fifth at Madrid having completed 24 key passes.
Other key players at the trio of clubs are the likes of Cesc Fabregas, who has assisted more goals than any other player in Europe, with 10. Koke is another important aspect of Atletico's rampaging form, creating the third-most chances in La Liga this season.
Gabi, of Atletico, is also important for how they play. Diego Simeone has his side playing a high-octane, high-pressing style of football and Gabi is a main component of that. He has won 12 tackles inside the opposition's half this season. Victor Sanchez, of Espanyol, is the only player to have more than Gabi, with 15. Gabi's also won more tackles, overall, than anyone else in the top five European leagues with 62 successful attempts.
Barcelona's Andres Iniesta has completed 504 passes in the opposition's half this season, which is more than anyone else in La Liga. However, his teammate Xavi has completed 360 passes in the final third of the pitch, and nobody can claim to have more than that.
To sustain a title challenge, you have to have a strong squad of very talented players, and all three sides possess precisely that.
Key Stats and Comparisons
All three teams are capable of scoring goals at will, proved by the fact that they've scored a combined 152 goals.
Barcelona and Atletico top the table thanks to their phenomenal defences. The latter have conceded 11 goals, which is one of the best records of defences in Europe. Only Bayern Munich, Lille (both eight) and Roma (10) have conceded fewer goals than Simeone's side. Barcelona are slightly behind Atletico, having conceded 12 goals.
Real Madrid have conceded 21 goals but have scored five more than their neighbours. Madrid's 52 goals places them third in Europe's top leagues, slightly behind Barcelona (53) and Manchester City who have scored a staggering 57 goals.
However, due to playing two games fewer, Barcelona are averaging more goals per game than City with 2.94 per game. City have scored 2.85 goals per game and Madrid are on 2.88.
In terms of chance creation, Real Madrid lead the way in La Liga having completed a mammoth 274 key passes from 18 games, averaging 15.2 per game.
Barcelona have created a lot less, having completed 203 key passes, averaging 11.2 completed key passes per game. Atletico are further down the list with 182 and an average of 10.1 completed key passes per game.
Chance creation and goalscoring is clearly not a problem for Spain's three biggest sides right now. Their defences are solid, too, meaning the title race will be as good as it has ever been this season.
Both Barcelona and Atletico are famed for their high-pressing game, and the following statistic shows just how good they are at it.
Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico have all won 74 tackles in their opponent’s half this season, the joint most in La Liga. Real Madrid have won 66 tackles in their opponent's half, which is the fifth-highest in La Liga.
Atletico are also streets ahead of their two main rivals in the overall column, having won 371 tackles from an attempted 541. Barcelona's figures are 309/485, while Real's stand at 285/429.
Passing is obviously a main focus of Barcelona's style of play, so it comes as no surprise to see them sat top of the La Liga table in terms of passing accuracy and most passes completed. The reigning Spanish champions have completed 88 percent of their attempted 11534 passes—that means they've completed a stunning 10156 passes, 1934 successful passes more than Real Madrid who sit second in both departments.
As you can see, the numbers surrounding the three clubs are staggering and show exactly how good they've played. Atletico have been just as good as Barcelona and have used their high-line tackling system to perfection, whereas the Catalans have just continued their dominance from previous seasons to lead the way as we approach the halfway mark in La Liga.
Real Madrid are lagging slightly behind, but you feel they'll come good now after a sluggish start to the season. They're scoring and creating chances for fun, and with Ronaldo leading the forward line, they could beat anyone. However, their shaky defence is a concern, especially when compared to their two main rivals, who are water-tight at the back.
The La Liga title race will go right down to the wire, and it could go either of three different ways.