What a difference half a year makes. Last May, as the sun set on the 2014/15 La Liga season, Atletico Madrid weren't even particularly close to defending the title they had won a year before. The Mattress Makers finished the 2014/15 campaign in a respectable third place. However, their point tally of 78 was so far from Real Madrid (92) and Barcelona (94), that Atletico was hardly even in the same league, quality-wise.

Fast-forward to the first week of the New Year, though, and Atletico Madrid are back in the driver's seat, their consistency putting them above the flashier soccer squads of both Barca and Real Madrid. The Mattress Makers did lose one of their festive period fixtures, falling 0-1 to Malaga just five days before Christmas. However, Atletico followed that match up with two consecutive shutout victories, beating Rayo Vallecano 2-0 on December 30th and topping Levante 1-0 on the second day of the New Year.

Misleading Table Standings

While Atletico Madrid is currently two points ahead of Barcelona on the La Liga standings table, it's also only fair to note that the table standings are a bit misleading at the moment. The Mattress Makers have taken 42 points for 18 fixtures. Barcelona, meanwhile, has earned 40 points from just 17 matches. The reigning Spanish champions, in other words, could easily sweep back into the lead once they are level with Atletico in terms of matches played.

Barca is one game behind thanks to their participation in the FIFA Club World Cup in December-a tournament that led to yet another title for the already well-decorated soccer squad. With that said, though, Barcelona have drawn three of their last five La Liga fixtures, including a scoreless stalemate with Espanyol in their first game of 2016.

It seems that Barca is having to adjust to reintegrate Lionel Messi back into the lineup, just as they had to adapt to win games without him following his injury in the fall. Even the games Barca have won lately-including a 4-0 triumph over Real Betis on December 30th-have still been driven by Neymar and Luis Suarez. Neymar provided two assists in that game (including one for Messi's lone goal) while Luis Suarez scored a brace.

An Inconsistent Holiday Season for Real Madrid

Still, having to integrate Messi into the lineup is a great problem for any football club to have, and it seems only a matter of time before FC Barcelona push back to the top of the table. When they do, though, it's entirely possible that Atletico Madrid-not Real Madrid-will be their top rivals for the 2015/16 La Liga title.

Indeed, Real Madrid continued to be blazingly inconsistent during the festive period. On one hand, the Vikings managed the biggest win of the entire La Liga season on December 20th, with a 10-2 victory over Rayo Vallecano. The game showed off the best of Real's world-class talent: four goals from Gareth Bale, three goals from Karim Benzema, two goals and an assist from Cristiano Ronaldo, and three assists from James Rodriguez. Ronaldo added two more goals on December 30th, in a 3-1 win against Real Sociedad.

With wins like that-which singlehandedly put Real Madrid at the top of both scoring and goal difference for the season so far-it's tough to bet against the Vikings as potential title contenders. However, Real also gave up an early lead against Valencia to settle for a 2-2 tie in their first match of 2016-a performance that has been rightly criticized by the football media. Can a team this oddly inconsistent have a chance at winning a La Liga title?

For now, Real Madrid is four points behind Atletico and two points behind Barcelona. They're also just one point ahead of Villarreal, who have won five games in a row across all competitions. With impressive festive period wins against Sociedad, Valencia, and Deportivo La Coruna, could Villarreal break up La Liga's leading trio and score a top-three finish in 2016? If so, they would be the first football club to do so since Valencia in 2012.

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