Title rivals Barcelona and Atletico Madrid stayed locked together at the top of La Liga after they played out an intense 0-0 draw with few genuine chances at the Estadio Vicente Calderon on Saturday.
Not even the introduction of Barca’s fit-again World Player of the Year Lionel Messi at halftime or Brazil forward Neymar with just more than 20 minutes left could break the deadlock.
Both teams have 50 points at the halfway stage of the campaign.
“They are a very, very compact side, one of the best teams in Europe and physically very strong,” Barca captain Xavi told Spanish broadcaster Canal Plus. “Normally, in the final 15, 20 minutes against them is when we finish stronger and have chances to score, but it was a finely balanced game and Atletico are a great team.”
The result was good news for third-placed Real Madrid, who could have closed to within three points of the joint leaders yesterday — Barca are top on goal difference — if they win at RCD Espanyol, the only team to have beaten Atletico this season.
Real lost 1-0 at home to Atletico at the end of September last year and went down 2-1 at Barca in October’s Clasico, but have not been beaten since and are likely to be challenging for the title when the league reaches its climax in May.
At Saturday’s closely fought encounter, Atletico, who had won all nine of their previous home league matches this season, started stronger, with Turkey midfielder Arda Turan and Spain forward Diego Costa creating some early danger for the visiting defense.
However, Barca gradually began to exert their customary control, with Xavi and Sergio Busquets pulling the strings in the middle, and threatened the home goal in the 33rd minute when Pedro headed Andres Iniesta’s cross over the bar.
Messi drew a fine save from Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois with a fizzing low shot in the 81st minute, but otherwise made little impact against a typically resolute home defense.
Elsewere in La Liga on Saturday, RC Celta de Vigo inflicted a first defeat on new Valencia coach Juan Antonio Pizzi with a 2-1 home victory, while fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao moved to 36 points with a 6-1 win over promoted UD Almeria at the Estadio San Mames.
In the late game, Sevilla snatched a 1-1 draw at lowly Elche with an 89th-minute equalizer by Daniel Carrico to stay seventh on 30 points, one behind Villarreal.