Liga - Barcelona remain top after Atletico draw

The top two in La Liga played out a keenly fought 0-0 draw, with Barcelona staying ahead of Atletico Madrid on goal difference at the halfway mark of the season.

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Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa (L) and Barcelona's Jordi Alba fight for the ball during their Spanish first division soccer match at Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid January 11, 2014 (Reuters)

The result means Real Madrid can draw themselves to within three points of the top with a win over Espanyol on Sunday, as both Atletico and Barca missed their chance to take control of the title race.

Lionel Messi started on the bench having made his return from injury as a second half substitute in the mid-week Copa del Rey win over Getafe. Indeed, the Argentinean playmarker was introduced at half time against Atletico, but failed to make a telling impact, seeing his one good chance saved by Thibaut Courtois.

Atletico Madrid boasted a 100 per cent record at the Vicente Calderon prior to kick-off, winning nine out of nine, and started the game at a rate of knots, pressing Barcelona so hard the Spanish champions looked slightly overwhelmed. Gerard Pique came close to turning an Arda Turan cross into his own net, but deflected the ball over his own bar as the pressure mounted.

Diego Costa was looking lively, thriving on the game’s frenetic tempo, and passed up a couple of half chances, including one that he put inches wide after sliding in at the back post to meet Miranda’s flick on from a Koke corner kick.

Barcelona took a grip of the contest as the first half progressed but Gerardo Martino’s men struggled to break down the Atletico defence, who looked very well organized in the face of Catalan possession.

Pedro was afforded space at the near post from an Andres Iniesta cross, but the Spaniard made too much of a connection on his header, when all that was needed was a glancing effort.

Messi was introduced at half time for the injured Iniesta and passed up a good chance to give the visitors the lead, but he planted his free header tamely wide from 10 yards.

Costa continued to look like Atletico Madrid’s most likely goalscorer and was made to rue a missed opportunity after dragging wide from outside the box after good work by Arda Turan.

Turan was growing in influence in the second half and was provider for Costa once again, slotting through the Brazilian born striker with a neat pass but the flag was incorrectly raised for offside.

Neymar was brought on by the visitors as both teams searched for the goal to break the deadlock. But it was Messi who came closest to doing just that, skipping past a couple of challenges around the opposition box before unleashing a shot at goal. However, Courtois was equal to it and made a good save low down to his right.

Atletico Madrid pressed for a winner as the game came to a close but as time started to run out both teams appeared willing to settle for a draw, keeping them level at the top of the Spanish league table at the mid-point.

Celta Vigo inflicted a first defeat on Valencia's new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi with a 2-1 home victory, while fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao moved four points clear of Real Sociedad in fifth after a 6-1 win over promoted Almeria at the San Mames.

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