It's important to begin with the following statement: Saturday's match between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona will not be the end all decider of the title race in Spain. That doesn't lessen the importance of the match or make it any less pivotal in the how the season will play out. We simply need to remember that it's just one game.
Come the end of the season if Barcelona or Real Madrid are again lifting the title, it will be the 10th straight season that one of those two teams have won the league. 10 years of domination and a certain level of resigned predictability that has led to the Spanish league being labeled -- to a large extent correctly -- as a top heavy league in which two teams have too much power and money for anyone else to compete.
Hence the importance of Saturday's match at the Vincente Calderón.
Atlético Madrid's slow and steady growth over the past several season has led to this match. Like moves of a chessboard, Diego Simeone has built a team that is both capable of being successful against the rest of the league and standing toe-to-toe with the two giants. Atléti's victory over Real Madrid in last season's Copa del Rey final was a shot across the bow. Their victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabéu earlier this league season a broadside of cannon fire. Saturday, they will attempt to send out a boarding party.
Despite all their success since Simeone's arrival in late December 2011, there's still plenty of people who doubt Atlético. A Europa League title in 2012, the UEFA Super Cup victory in 2013 and a third place league finish in 2013 are apparentlynot enough for many to believe that this is anything more than a flash in the pan. Even I'm skeptical, to a certain extent, because we've seen other Spanish teams step-up to momentarily challenge Barca and Madrid's supremacy, only to fall back to earth as quickly as they rose.
A win would put Simeone's band of raiders three points clear of Barcelona at the top in mid-January. Spain needs this to happen. La Liga needs Atlético Madrid to win. Barca and Madrid fans would wholeheartedly disagree of course, but that's the result of ten years of status quo. It's time for a change, it's time for cages to be rattled and for a fresh face at the top of the league.
It needs to happen because it would be a big deal. People would talk about it. It would be good for the league because, for once, the narrative would be about something other than the same two teams winning everything. It would also serve as another litmus test of Altéti's potential for the doubters -- another important step towards a potentially historic title run.
I promise I'm not attempting to be some kind of buzzkill for Atlético fans or Barcelona haters. I'm not trying to lessen the importance of the match, I'm just trying to keep this in perspective and provide a counter balance to my own exuberance.
The game of football often leads us to make impulsive and ridiculous broad statements about entire seasons based on one game. Perception lends itself to that and it is why Atletico can earn a major victory for the league in 90 minutes on Saturday, but the real battle is not so easily won. If Barca take three points there will undoubtedly be some proclaiming the title race as over or some other similarly ridiculous statement and therein lies my point -- an astute watcher of the game will go into the match with the proper perspective.
There are two wars to be waged, but the only one that comes with a trophy won't be decided at the Vincente Calderón. There are four months left in that battle.