Still they cannot be separated. For once, the game presented as a title decider in Spain was not the clásico, but it turned out not to be a title decider either. Not yet, at least. If there was a winner on Saturday night, it was Real Madrid. Atlético Madrid and Barcelona drew 0-0 at the Vicente Calderón and both sides reached the halfway stage of the season, when everyone has played everyone else, on 50 points. Real face Espanyol on Sunday night knowing a victory will take them to 47.
There was tension and by the end the pace was frenetic, a final dramatic twist seemingly drawing near. A roar greeted the full-time whistle that spoke of appreciation and maybe a little relief, but this was not the match that many had hoped for. It was committed, fast, and at times it was fascinating too, but there were just two shots on target for each side in a game that only occasionally opened up.
Lionel Messi and Neymar appeared only as second-half subs: the Argentinian has only just returned from eight weeks out injured, but the Brazilian's late introduction was a pity for his team. He, like Turkey's Arda Turan on the other side, brought something different to this game; they were the men who seemed most likely to break through. Instead, the draw means Barcelona finished the night as Spain's winter champions. Who will be Spain's actual champions remains to be seen but Atlético's candidacy cannot be ignored.
Diego Simeone has built a team in his own image."Atléti, aplasta," ran the banner – Atlético, crush them – and to start with that appeared to be the plan. Diego Simeone had admitted that he did not expect his side to enjoy much possession and most anticipated a game in which Barcelona had the ball and Atlético waited for them. But Atlético pressured high, targeting Sergio Busquets, although it was Xavi who was dispossessed for the move that led to Atlético's first dangerous approach after three minutes. Turan got behind Jordi Alba – and not for the last time – before pulling the ball back across the six-yard box.
The urgency and intensity was revealed in Simeone swiftly returning the ball for his side to take a quick throw-in but such a high rhythm was hard to maintain and slowly the game settled into a more familiar pattern.
If Barcelona seemed content to move the ball without always seeking the final pass, they may have had half an eye on the bench and what might come later. Pedro was their greatest threat, Andrés Iniesta the focal point of their play. Alexis Sánchez barely saw the ball. Pedro headed over and Gerard Piqué almost caught out Thibaut Courtois from 30 yards. Meanwhile, at the other end, Villa's experienced was much like Sánchez's. The threat from the counterattack lingered but never materialised as a clear chance, not least because of Piqué, and the first half ended with few chances at either end.
The second half started with Messi on for Iniesta, who had twice been hit hard and gone down in the opening 45 minutes. He was removed with a knock on the knee. Cesc Fábregas moved into midfield and Messi returned to the false 9 position. He headed one effort wide before Diego Costa's only meaningful shot for Atlético, after Arda took the ball off Busquets and sprang forward, playing him in. Suddenly, Atlético were pressing again, high and intense; two more approaches followed immediately and Barcelona lost control. The noise in the Calderón rose, every challenge greeted with a roar, a bugle call for the counterattack.
Neymar was introduced soon after and the game opened up. Costa headed over from Filipe Luís, Turan's volley was saved by Víctor Valdés, and then Courtois reached Messi shot as he scurried into the ear. In the 91st minute, Neymar almost got in after some more clever footwork. It was the last big moment of a frantic final 10 minutes. Barcelona remain top. So too do Atlético.