Atletico Madrid and Barcelona played to a thrilling scoreless draw on Saturday in a match-up of La Liga title contenders at Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Barcelona remained atop the table on goal difference ahead of Atletico. Both teams now have 50 points, six more than third-placed Real Madrid.
The result ended Atletico's 100 percent home record, though it underlined the title credentials of Diego Simeone's side.
Little could separate the teams heading into Saturday's match. Atletico and Barca were level on points through 18 league matches, with Barcelona enjoying a five-goal advantage in goal differential. They drew both previous meetings this season, both of which came in the Spanish Super Cup, which Barcelona won on away goals.
Indeed, the rivalry could determine the destination of the La Liga title this season. The two teams' second league match of 2013-14, scheduled for May 18 at Camp Nou, also happens to be their last.
For now, both sides will have to be content with a draw and a tight title race. In fact, Saturday's only winner might have been Real Madrid, who entered the weekend five points behind the leaders and play Sunday at Espanyol.
Barcelona superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar started the match on the bench. Messi, winner of the last four Ballon d'Or awards and a finalist again for 2013, returned to training this week following a five-week layoff due to a hamstring injury.
In their place, Barca manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino selected Alexis Sanchez, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro in his three-man attack. Simeone countered with a 4-4-2 led by Diego Costa and former Barcelona striker David Villa.
Atletico Madrid created the first chance in the fourth minute as Koke weaved through Barcelona's box and tried to cut back a pass from the byline, but Gerard Pique alertly headed the ball away from danger. A minute later, Costa forced a save out of Victor Valdes after bringing down Villa's cross and shooting from the edge of the box.
Costa came close again in the 28th minute, nearly turning the ball into Barca's net at the far post following Miranda's near-post flick from a corner. Pique tested Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in the 35th minute with a dipping shot from distance, and the teams went into half-time goalless.
Martino introduced Messi in the 46th minute, replacing Andres Iniesta and slotting Messi into his familiar false-nine role in Barca's attack. Messi's first chance came in the 54th minute, when he redirected Dani Alves' cross wide of the target, but he had been ruled offside anyway.
The next chance fell to Atletico, with Costa firing wide after Arda Turan led a quick counter in Barca's half.
Barcelona responded by bringing on Neymar in the 67th minute for Alexis. Two minutes later, Messi came close with a header that flew wide of the back post following Jordi Alba's cross from the left.
Simeone made his first change in the 77th minute, taking off Villa for Raul Garcia. Within moments, Atleti had created a couple good chances to take the lead.
Costa headed over Barca's goal from Filipe Luis' cross on the left. Then, in the 79th minute, Valdes saved Turan's volley from the middle of the box.
At the other end, Messi surged into the box and forced Courtois into a save with a hooked shot from the left. Gabi blocked Cesc's attempted shot in the 86th minute after Cesc had been set up by Messi.
In the end, though, neither team was able to find the crucial breakthrough goal. And for another week at least, the La Liga title race remained almost as tight as possible.
|Atletico Madrid Player Ratings vs. Barcelona|
|Raul Garcia (for Villa, 77')||6|
|Cristian Rodriguez (for Tiago, 82')||6|
|Barcelona Player Ratings vs. Atletico Madrid|
|Lionel Messi (for Iniesta, 46')||6|
|Neymar (for Alexis, 67')||6|
|Sergi Roberto (for Pedro, 82')||5|
Atletico host Valencia on Tuesday in the second leg of their Copa del Rey round of 16 tie, which is tied 1-1. After that, Atleti host Sevilla in the league next Sunday.
Barcelona play at Getafe on Thursday in the second leg of their Copa del Rey Round of 16 tie. Barca won the first leg 4-0 at Camp Nou. After that, Barca play at Levante in the league next Sunday.