Can Atletico Madrid Challenge Barcelona (and Real) For the Title?

Matthew Lewis

Falcao’s Rojiblancos continue a dominant run through La Liga with yet another win, but can they truly challenge the duopoly for the league title?

Another win for Barcelona and another win for Madrid. The two remain unbeaten, level on points at the top of the table, with their star strikers in fine form. This is the Spanish duopoly of always yet again, except for one thing: while it is Lionel Messi’s FC Barcelona, the team from Madrid is Atletico, with their star man, Radamel Falcao, in red-hot form.

Falcao, the tiger in red-and-white stripes, scored yet again for Atletico de Madrid, as Los Colchoneros swatted away Osasuna 3-1. It’s the 11th straight game he finds the net, and he’s doing it with the regularity to rival Messi or Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s also the 23rd match in a row Atletico remain unbeaten, already a club record.

Since their opening day draw against Levante, Atletico have won eight straight. But their recent success, like their unbeaten run, has its roots in last season.

Atletico has been traditionally one of the biggest teams in Spain, but the extent to which they were outshone by their local rivals, Real Madrid, has increased. They haven’t beaten Real in over a decade. On the global scene, one could scarcely call them a truly "big" club anymore.

Their brightest players tend to leave, including Fernando Torres and more recently, David de Gea, Diego Forlan, and Sergio Aguero.

But Atletico remain a team of some power. They spent heavily for Falcao prior to last season as a replacement for Aguero, but that investment looks better and better with every match.

Just as significantly, Diego Simeone, the rough-tackling Argentine midfielder of old, was hired as the new manager. The team under Simeone looks radically different: professional, committed, and hungry.

Since his appointment, they have captured the Europa League and the European Super Cup in convincing fashion. They finished a respectable fifth in the league, with their eyes set on a higher position. They sit level on points with Barca now, and they’ve won all their Europa League matches so far as well.

But can they keep up with Barcelona, easily one of the best teams on the planet? And, despite their eight-point cushion over Real, can they stay ahead as Los Blancos have picked up the pace?

It could all be smoke and mirrors. Levante were first as late as the tenth round last season, but they ultimately finished sixth. In 2008-09, Valencia were top after eight rounds and finished sixth.

But neither team looked quite as strong as Atletico have looked so far. For one, neither had a player as talented as Falcao. For another, neither team had won eight on the trot. And neither team had tasted glory like Atletico has in Europe recently.

At the moment, there is uncertainty. Are they good enough to win the league? "Maybe, but probably not," seems the consensus.

We may be getting something approaching the real answer fairly soon.

They have already beaten Malaga, currently third, but they will face some stiff challenges that may settle the pecking order, at least for the moment.

They face off against Valencia in their next league meeting and Sevilla some time after that, two traditional Spanish powers who have already caused trouble for Barcelona and Real Madrid this season.

Their most significant test, however, will be a short trip to face Real in the Bernabeu. This could be the tipping point for Atletico being taken as serious contenders: a chance to assert themselves as the best team in Madrid, not just on points but on the pitch.

And not too long after, another trip to face Barcelona at the Camp Nou and another chance to establish themselves atop the hill awaits.

They couldn’t….

…could they?

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