Some nil nil draws can be boring fare but this had excitement and flair, it was like a game of chess being played out by grandmasters Diego Simeone and Tata Martino.
Barcelona boss Martino surprised many pundits, myself included, by leaving both Neymar and the back from injury Messi on the bench. This news seemed to galvanise Atletico and it was they who took the game to Barca in the early stages.
Atleti’s Turkish winger Arda was pulling the strings in a full energy man-of-the-match performance. Pique had to be at his best to head an early Arda cross over the bar. Barcelona saw a lot of the ball but, as I predicted, Atletico defended deeply and resiliently and caught Barcelona on the break time and again.
David Villa and, particularly, Diego Costa were a real threat to the visitors but neither of them could find a way past Valdes in the Barca goal. Costa came closest as he prodded the ball wide of the target. Although it was scoreless at half time the home fans sensed that this could be their day – the red and white scarves twirled all around the stadium during the interval as they sensed that this could be the day that they made themselves favourites for the La Liga title.
Barcelona hearts were lifted at the start of the second half – Messi was brought on to replace Iniesta who had picked up an injury. Was Messi always going to come on at half time or was it a sign of Martino’s frustration at their lack of impact in the game?
The second half was a much more even affair, but there were few real chances to score. Arda produced a spectacular scissor kick that flew straight at Valdes and Messi himself put a header wide that he would usually have buried. Perhaps expectations were too high after his two come back goals in the Copa del Rey in midweek – after all, Atletico are no Getafe.
Neymar was brought on late into the game but he had little impact. Atletico were playing a high energy game, they battled for every ball and denied Barcelona any time and space. Diego Costa himself was defending as much as he was attacking. It worked perfectly and the fans celebrated at the final whistle as if it had been a victory – but to my mind they could have taken all three points if they had been a little more adventurous in attack.
Honours even then, yet there was one winner – Real Madrid who would move to within three points of the leaders with a victory at Espanyol this evening.