If La Liga's crunch clash of the weekend failed to truly catch fire, it certainly bristled with a pleasing level of intent. Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay to Atletico Madrid, and the strides they have made under Diego Simeone, is that Barcelona left the Estadio Vicente Calderon relatively happy with a draw.
Both teams had chances to win the match right to the end, but one sensed that neither was too displeased with the stalemate, indicating the mutual respect between the sides—and the fact that Atletico are now genuine contenders, rather than a mere irritant for the Barca-Real Madrid duopoly that has dominated the competition in recent years.
The first acknowledgment of Atletico's pedigree was perhaps in Tata Martino's team selection, with both Lionel Messi and Neymar left on the bench. This was not a game in which Barca could have won La Liga, but if they'd have put too much strain on Messi too quickly, they could have gone a long way to losing it. Atleti, a team hewn in Simeone's image, are a physical beast.
Any concerns that Barca's coach had in this direction were borne out as the game unfolded. Messi's entrance after half-time was precipitated by an injury to Andres Iniesta, with the Spain midfielder the subject of particularly close attention from Atleti's skipper Gabi in the first 45 minutes.
This column has already examined Simeone's seismic impact in his two years at the Vicente Calderon, but one of the most intriguing aspects of the team he has created is their ability to combine craft and durability. Gabi is as good an example as any, blessed with passing vision and able to unlock the door from set-pieces as well as break up the opposition's rhythm.
It is this versatility and strength which makes a persuasive argument for Atleti being able to sustain a domestic and continental challenge. For all AC Milan's signs of life—and particularly the upturn in Kaka's fortunes, even bearing in mind the weekend defeat at Sassuolo and Max Allegri's subsequent exit—it is hard to see a way they can cope with Atleti's strength and superior range of options when their Champions League last 16 tie gets underway next month.
How far will Atletico go in the Champions League?
The collective strength of Los Colchoneros is what has helped them get over the exit of Radamel Falcao with little trauma; no mean feat considering the Colombian's contribution in Madrid, which amounted to 52 goals in 68 La Liga games alone. Diego Costa has stepped up admirably, and Barca deserve congratulations for being the first visitors to the Calderon to stop the soon-to-be Spain international scoring at the Calderon this season, at the 12th attempt.
Yet Simeone has plenty more at his disposal. Arda Turan was perhaps the team's outstanding performer on Saturday night, as pointed out in this excellent analysis by Lee Roden for Talksport. The Turkey international's dribbling skill has never been in doubt, but his industry and confidence is what is most striking about him at present.
It is a tribute to Simeone's work. Turan was a nervous character as a young player, and few would have expected him to become a rare Turkish player to flourish at the top level abroad, let alone to become such an on-pitch leader. He is one of a clutch of such players at Atleti's disposal, including Diego Godin and Tiago.
There is real strength-in-depth too. Josuha Guilavogui, one of France's most promising midfield players, has yet to start a game in La Liga, even if he is expected to play more as the season progresses. Simeone sprang a surprise in his own team selection on Saturday, with Adrian Lopez and young Oliver Torres watching from the stands. The coach has options.
We know Atletico have the talent and the power. The only question that remains is do they have the nerve to get over the line in either La Liga or the Champions League?