The first half of the La Liga season has been building toward the upcoming matchup between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
These two squads have dominated the Spanish league all year, each earning 16 wins and a draw in 18 matches. Although Barcelona have the slight advantage in goal differential to remain in first place, Atletico Madrid have stayed right in the race with the reigning league champions.
A win for either side could give it a leg up heading into the second half of the season.
Then again, the players do not want to put too much pressure on the match. According to Liam Newman of Goal.com, Cesc Fabregas recently said, "It's not a game that will decide the league, but will give the winner confidence to win."
Whether the winner of this match goes on to secure a trophy at the end remains to be seen. What we do know is that this battle will be a major factor going forward until the clubs meet again on the last day of the season.
When: Saturday, Jan. 11
Where: Vicente Calderon Stadium, Madrid, Spain
Time (U.S.): 2 p.m. ET
Time (U.K.): 7 p.m. GMT
TV (U.S.): beIN Sport, beIN Sport en Espanol
TV (U.K.): Sky Sports 4
Live Stream: beIN Sport Play
Odds (via SkyBet): Barcelona (11-10), Atletico Madrid (23-10), Draw (5-2)
Top Storyline: Can Atletico Madrid Compete With the Big Boys?
Anyone who follows Spanish football knows that two clubs have dominated the scene for a long time: Barcelona and Real Madrid. In the past five years, these two giants have finished in first and second in La Liga, while one of them has won the title in each of the past nine season.
However, Atletico Madrid sent a message with a Copa del Rey title last year. They then followed that up with a strong performance against Barcelona in the Supercopa, losing on away goals despite a 1-1 score.
The next big step was a 1-0 road win over Real Madrid at the end of September. While the victories kept coming, a bad loss to Barcelona would show people that Atletico still are not ready.
Still, people have been expecting a drop-off at some point all season, as noted by Sid Lowe of ESPN FC:
For months Atletico-Barcelona shone out across the other fixtures, a defining moment eclipsing all else, but somewhere along the line the expectation was that Atleti would drop points before they got there.
Even if it was only a couple of draws, most anticipated that they might slip a little behind. Instead, as we reach the exact halfway point of the season, they remain level with Barcelona, five points ahead of Real Madrid.
Atletico Madrid can send a message to the rest of the league and the rest of the world that they are legitimate contenders and here to stay.
Prediction: Atletico Madrid 1, Barcelona 1
There is still a question as to whether superstar Lionel Messi will start this match after he just recently returned from a hamstring injury, according to Reuters. Either way, he will still make an impact at some point in this match.
Even without him, Barcelona have elite offensive threats in Neymar, Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and more.
Still, Atletico Madrid have the top scoring defense in the league for a reason. They limited Barcelona in the Supercopa, and they can do it again by sitting back and preventing the offense from penetrating into the box.
Barca will hold possession for the majority of the match, but they will be unable to get too many scoring chances.
Meanwhile, David Villa and Koke should be able to set up Diego Costa for at least one score as he finds a way past the opposing defense. This match should feature a lot of big moments, but Atletico Madrid should earn a respectable draw at home.
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