Madrid: Atletico Madrid and Barcelona remain locked together on 50 points at the top of La Liga after a 0-0 draw at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday. Barca boss Gerardo Martino had named Lionel Messi and Neymar only on the substitutes bench on their respective returns from injury and illness.
However, after a first period devoid of clear-cut chances, Martino introduced Messi at half-time in place of the injured Andres Iniesta. And the four-time World Player of the Year nearly proved decisive as only a fine save from Thibaut Courtois denied him from grabbing the winner nine minutes from time.
Both sides now lie six points clear of Real Madrid, but Los Blancos can reduce that gap with a win away to Espanyol on Sunday.
"A point is fine, although we would have liked to have won. We were playing against another very strong side, which hasn't lost at home yet," Martino said afterwards.
"We didn't play our best match by any means, but we have nothing to castigate ourselves for either."
Atletico boss Diego Simeone was similarly content with a point he believes leaves Atletico very much in the hunt for the title.
"It was a game of few chances in which both sides tried to assert themselves with their own characteristics.
"It was as competitive and close a match as you would expect between the top two teams in the Spanish league.
"Thanks to the great work of the players we have 50 points, which is a great total, and are in a privileged positon."
Encouraged by a raucous home support, Atletico started the brighter and were unlucky not to be ahead after five minutes when Gerard Pique nearly turned Arda Turan's cross into his own net following a wonderful solo run by the Turkish international.
Thereafter, though, chances were hard to come by in the first 45 minutes as Diego Costa and Pedro Rodriguez saw low efforts comfortably saved at either end. As expected, Barcelona enjoyed the majority of possession, but without their star strike duo they lacked the spark necessary to create anything of note.
Indeed, it was the hosts who had the best opening of the first half on 28 minutes when Miranda flicked on Koke's corner and Costa just couldn't turn the ball home on the stretch at the back post.
Martino unsurprisingly responded at half-time by introducing Messi for the injured Iniesta, who had to be replaced after receiving a knock on his left knee. The Argentine had made an instant impact as a substitute in his first appearance in two months as he scored twice against Getafe in the Copa del Rey in midweek.
However, his arrival didn't signal an immediate turnaround in Barca's fortunes as Atletico again started the half on the front foot and Costa drilled just wide after more good work from Turan.
Neymar was then introduced with 25 minutes remaining for the ineffective Alexis Sanchez. But it was Messi who was to have the next opening moments later as he nodded just wide from Pedro's cross.
Simeone made an offensive change of his own as he went in search of the three points with the in-form Raul Garcia replacing David Villa. And Garcia nearly made an instant impact as his knockdown found Turan free inside the area, but his low shot was easily handled by Victor Valdes.
Messi then forced Courtois into his most strenuous save of the evening with a driven left-footed effort that the Belgian got to well to parry. However, just like when the sides last met in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup in August, there was to be no goals as both teams emerged with their title hopes intact.