(CNN) -- It was billed as the battle of the heavyweights.
In the red corner -- Radamel Falcao -- one of the most coveted strikers in world football and one of the most lethal finishers around.
Only last week, Falcao hit five in his side's demolition of Deportivo to add to his already burgeoning reputation.
In the blue corner -- Lionel Messi -- perhaps the greatest to have ever played the game. The man with 88 goals to his name in 2012.
The magical and mesmerizing feet of Messi going up against the pace and predatory instincts of Falcao. It had all the ingredients of a classic.
Between them they have run La Liga and European defenses ragged, scoring goals at will and leaving defenders trailing in their wake.
Going into the clash, Messi had plundered 23 league goals to Falcao's 16. It was time for the two to go head-to-head.
For Barcelona, victory over Atletico would place it nine points clear of its closest title rival and surely allow the Catalan club to wrestle the title away from defending champion Real Madrid.
A win for Atletico would finally confirm that Diego Simeone's men could be taken seriously as a championship challenger.
Atletico and Falcao -- the pretenders to Barcelona and Messi's crown.
And pretenders they will remain.
In the end, the chasm could scarcely have been greater as Simeone's men were put in their place without any sign of mercy from Tito Vilanova's side.
Barca has now won 15 of its opening 16 league games, taking an astonishing 46 points from a possible 48.
With Real Madrid only managing to draw with Espanyol earlier Sunday, Barca moved 13 points clear of its great rival.
It was Messi who stole the show once again as the little magician emerged out of the shadows to crush Atletico.
Two second-half strikes took his total to 90 for the calendar year and 25 league goals for the season as Barca came from behind to win 4-1.
And yet for the opening 30 minutes it appeared that the Messi's evening might have not been so enjoyable.
Instead it was Falcao who took center stage, bullying Barcelona's defenders at every opportunity.
It was the Colombia star who had the first opportunity of the contest, heading against the post after just nine minutes as Atletico signaled its intentions.
Falcao then went close again after firing narrowly wide when well placed, while Messi seemed to vanish as Atletico took control of the contest.
Barcelona was finally undone just after the half-hour mark when Falcao produced an exquisite finish to silence the majorityof those packed inside the Camp Nou.
After taking the ball in his stride, Falcao burst past Barcelona's central defenders before lifting the ball over the stranded Victor Valdes to net his 17th league goal of the season.
It was no less than Atletico deserved, but that strike only served to awaken Barca from its slumber.
No less than five minutes had elapsed before Barca drew level in spectacular style thanks to Adriano's stunning curling effort.
The right-back turned onto his left-foot, before unleashing a wonderful rasping effort into the top corner to bring his side level.
And with just seconds of the first half remaining, Busquets lashed home from close-range after Atletico had failed to clear.
From dominating the game, Atletico had been rumbled in the blink of an eye.
Worse was to follow as Messi began to find time and space as Atletico started to lose its way.
Just 12 minutes of the second half had passed before the Argentine finally grabbed his trademark goal, firing home his 89th of the year with a neat curling effort.
He reached 90 late on, taking advantage of a horrific defensive mistake to slot home his 25th league goal of the season.
Incredibly, Messi has scored 58 out of Barcelona's 116 league goals in 2012.
Meanwhile, the pressure continues to build on Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho after he all but conceded defeat in the race for the title.
Real fell further off the pace after being held to a 2-2 draw at home by lowly Espanyol and are 13 points off the lead.
Espanyol had taken a shock lead through Sergio Garcia after 31 minutes before strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao put the home side in control.
But with just two minutes remaining, Juan Albin popped up to steal a precious point for relegation-threatened Espanyol and leave Real reeling.
"The league is now impossible," Mourinho told reporters.
"It is the first time that I have been in a situation like this where my team are a long way off their objectives.
"But I don't want to make a drama out of it, I will treat it as another stage of my life."
Elsewhere in La Liga, Valencia was beaten 1-0 at home by Rayo Vallecano, while Levante claimed a 1-0 victory at Real Zaragoza.