Level at the top of the Liga on 49 points, FC Barcelona and Club Atlético de Madrid meet at the Estadio Vicente Calderón on Saturday in a headline match that will determine who leads the way at the season's halfway mark.
Each side has won 16, drawn one and lost one of their 18 games this term. For the Rojiblancos this represents their best performance at this stage of a campaign. A victory for the hosts, who last lifted the championship in 1995/96, could be significant for not since 2006/07 has the team that topped the table midway through the season – Barcelona – not gone on to claim the title.
The contest also pits the division's top scorer last term, Lionel Messi, against one of the men in contention to wrest away the Argentinian international's Pichichi crown, 19-goal Diego Costa. Messi returned from two months on the sidelines to score twice late on against Getafe CF in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, 24 hours after Atlético drew 1-1 at Valencia CF in the first instalment of their fifth-round tie.
In two interesting subplots, former Blaugrana striker David Villa faces the club he left last summer with 33 goals in 77 league outings to his name, and Barcelona's Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino goes head-to-head with compatriot Diego Simeone.
"It's going to be a very important game because it's the top two sides in the table playing each other," said Koke, the match winner as Atlético returned to Liga action last weekend at Málaga CF. "It's another game and although there's the whole second half of the season to go, we know this is the most important match."
There was little to separate the teams when they contested the Spanish Super Cup in late August, Barcelona triumphing on away goals thanks to Neymar's first-leg strike in Madrid. Xavi Hernández, an experienced head in encounters such as this, appreciates the importance of Saturday's heavyweight fixture.
"The match against Atlético is vital to the outcome of the Liga," he said. "It's not definitive, but a win would be a big blow to strike. We go into the match in good form and we will try to take the game to them and ensure everyone sees a good Barça."
A draw would allow third-placed Real Madrid CF, who visit RCD Espanyol on Sunday, to close the gap to three points.
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