By Ewan McQueen

If you had asked most pundits which Madrid club would be keeping pace with Barcelona at the start of the 2012-13 La Liga season, then it is a fair bet most people will have said Real instead of Atletico.

It is to Atletico’s credit then that after nine games they are level with Barcelona at the top of the Spanish League. An opening day draw with Levante has been followed by eight consecutive victories, leaving Los Rojiblancos joint first with 25 points, eight ahead of their capital rivals Real, who are fourth.

Add to that a 4-1 European Super Cup win over Chelsea and a perfect start to the defence of their Europa League campaign, then you see that Diego Simeone’s men really are one of the in-form sides in European football.

After joining Atletico in December 2011, the Argentine led his side to a fifth place finish, only missing out on a Champions League spot by 2 points. His biggest triumph of course was the wonderful win in the Europa League final where Atletico trounced a spectacular Athletic Bilbao side 3-0.

Spearheaded by the fantastic and in-demand striker Radamel Falcao, Atletico have really kicked on this season playing a superb brand of exciting and attacking football. In their five home games this season, they have scored 15 goals which has meant they have had a perfect record at the Vicente Calderon stadium, where they have enjoyed an emphatic 4-0 win over Bilbao and a 2-1 victory against Malaga, amongst others.

Falcao has been the key to Atletico holding their own with the big two of Barcelona and Real Madrid having scored ten goals in the league already this term, almost half way to his tally of 24 from last season. The Colombian striker has been ably assisted by the creative Arda Turan and Cristian Rodriguez in midfield whilst Juan Fran, normally more associated with his defensive work, has also chipped in with three assists.

Simeone’s men have had a great start, but can they challenge the big boys?

With the solid Diego Godin in defence and the wonderfully talented Thibaut Courtois in goals, there is quality all around this Atletico side.

Some may point out that Atletico have had a fairly easy start to the season, but the 4-2 win over Real Betis combined with the aforementioned victories over Malaga and Bilbao shows the attacking potency and overall strength of this side.

This coming Saturday sees Simeone’s side face a tough test away to Valencia, who despite currently lying 11th in the league have already drawn with Real Madrid this season.

December will see a true test of Atletico’s title credentials as they travel to both Real Madrid and Barcelona before the year ends. If they manage to get something from even one of those games, then perhaps Simeone can dream of winning the La Liga title with Atletico, something he achieved as a player with the club in 1996.

However, January is the real key for Atletico. If they can hold on to Falcao until the end of the season, then the number nine might just have enough in his locker to mount a true challenge to Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Whatever happens between now and May though, Atletico can be extremely pleased with the remarkable start they have made to the current campaign.

Simeone and his side will feel that a Champions League place beckons at the very worst come the end of the season.