The main challenge for Barcelona so far in La Liga has unsurprisingly come from Madrid, but not from eternal rivals Real but their neighbours Atlético. Diego Simeone has built a team capable of competing with the very best sides in Spain and Europe and with only two matches left until the end of the first half of the season, Atlético currently sit in second place in La Liga, seven points ahead of Real Madrid in third and nine behind Barcelona, with an excellent chance of at least finishing second if they keep their form up. While the whole team and Simeone deserve credit for Atlético’s transformation, one man is truly responsible for their growth from pretenders into contenders: the sensational Radamel Falcao.

When Atlético splashed 40 million on the Colombian in the summer of 2011 to replace the departing Sergio Aguero, many eyebrows were raised but Falcao has thoroughly justified his price tag, in fact you could even say he was a bargain given his production on the pitch. His first season was a massive success, with 24 goals in La Liga and 12 in the Europa League leading Atlético to 5th place in the league and yet another Europa League title. He picked up where he had left off at Porto, where he had scored 34 and 38 goals in the two previous seasons, and proved his credentials as one of the very best strikers in the world. But it was this season that Falcao really established himself as one of the best players not only in La Liga but around the globe.

The best striker in the world at the moment?

With Simeone finally able to provide him with a strong and well organized supporting cast at Atlético, Falcao’s performance has been nothing short of phenomenal. The sensational hat trick against Chelsea in the European Super Cup to give Atlético yet another trophy was merely a sign of things to come. The Colombian striker has found the net an astonishing 17 times in 15 La Liga appearances – numbers only surpassed by the inevitable Lionel Messi – and is without a doubt the main man responsible for Atlético’s amazing campaign so far. Be it with his right foot, left foot or head, there’s simply no stopping Falcao, if you give him any space inside the box you can be sure that he will pounce on it. Not only that, he offers far more than just goals as his overall game has been massively improving with every year that goes by and he’s becoming a more and more complete player.

In a recent home match against Deportivo, Falcao became the first man in a decade to score 5 goals in a La Liga match, and they were not exactly tap-ins but extraordinary and varied goals. The following week, he scored a fabulous goal at Camp Nou although Atlético ended up losing 4-1. He is proving every week that he is a very special player, one of those players who can turn a very good team into a great team, into genuine contenders. While Atlético got him for 40 million, it will take a lot more to take him away from Madrid and his stock is only rising with many fans and pundits hailing him as the best pure #9 in the world, a claim that Falcao keeps justifying on the pitch week after week.

But are Falcao’s days at Atlético close to the end or could he stick around and become a legend at Atlético and La Liga? It’s hard to say for sure what are Falcao’s plans, but the sad reality is that no matter how well he performs and how hard Atlético try to provide him with the best platform possible to succeed, the chances of winning a title in Spain over both Barcelona and Real Madrid are very, very slim at best. Besides, there will be no shortage of clubs willing to offer Falcao world class teammates and millionaire wages to lure him. Logic would suggest that the Colombian striker will move on to bigger and better things soon, maybe in England or even one of Spain’s two giants. But El Tigre (as he’s known in the football world) is a very ambitious player, not to mention the kind of player that really relishes a challenge – as far as challenges go, it doesn’t get much harder than trying to make Atlético compete with such juggernauts as Barcelona and Real Madrid – so you might very well see him stick around Madrid for a while.

If you had to pick one single moment/event to describe Falcao, it’d have to be the 90th minute of Atlético’s trip to San Sebastian earlier this season. With the score at 0-0, Atlético got a free kick relatively close to the box. Falcao had rarely ever taken free kicks in his career and never scored one, but he still took the ball, told his teammates to step aside and buried the free kick to give Atlético the three points. No event represents what kind of player and competitor as Falcao is as well as this one…