MADRID (Reuters) - Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were satisfied with a share of the spoils after they canceled each other out in an intense 0-0 draw on Saturday that moved the joint La Liga leaders on to 50 points at the midpoint of the season.
The stalemate at the Calderon, during which genuine scoring chances were few and far between, means Barca still lead on goal difference after 19 matches but it opens the way for third-placed Real Madrid to close to within three points if they can beat mid-table Espanyol later on Sunday (1.00 p.m. ET).
Barca coach Gerardo Martino was forced at halftime to bring on Lionel Messi, who only returned to action on Wednesday after a two-month injury absence, after Andres Iniesta suffered a knock to his left knee.
However, not even the introduction of the Argentine World Player of the Year or Brazil forward Neymar, who missed Wednesday's King's Cup game against Getafe due to illness, with around 20 minutes left broke the deadlock as neither made much impact on a resolute Atletico defense.
"The point is positive if we consider that we played at the stadium of a team that had maximum points at home," Martino told a post-match news conference.
"We wanted to win the match but we have nothing to reproach ourselves for," added the Argentine.
"It's not a bad thing to end the first half of the season with 50 points and I have the feeling that the game will make us even stronger."
Martino said he was pleased with the way his players prevented Atletico from launching their trademark counter attacks and their effectiveness in closing down their opponents.
"We were slower in moving the ball around and we were lacking a little in dynamism," he added.
"Nonetheless, in these kinds of matches you can't ignore the strengths of your opponent."
Atletico coach Diego Simeone, a compatriot of Martino and Messi who has transformed the team into challengers in Spain and Europe since taking over at the end of 2011, singled out forwards Diego Costa and David Villa for their work rate.
"It was a match in which we tried, using our strengths, to play an intelligent game and I think we did that," he told a separate news conference.
"Barcelona typically score four or five goals a match because they are a team who if you give them a chance they will punish you," added the former Argentina midfielder, who was playing for Atletico the last time they won La Liga in 1996.
"We went close to scoring a few times and I am completely satisfied with the team's work.
"We toiled very hard in defense but without the effort the forwards put in it's impossible to work as a unit.
"We got a good result, we remain in a privileged position and 50 points is a good amount."
Barca and Atletico are next in action later this week in the last 16 of the King's Cup.
Barca have a 4-0 advantage over Getafe when they play their second leg in Madrid on Thursday, while Atletico drew 1-1 at Valencia in last week's first leg and host their La Liga rivals on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Patrick Johnston)