Reading Time: 7 minutes
The Vicente Calderón Stadium is set to be demolished at the end of 2016/17 season, and a park is planned to be built in its place. Barcelona had come into this game with thoughts of easing that demolition , the team being in a desperate need to build confidence for that crucial second leg against PSG in the Champions League. Atlético Madrid, however, is the least fancied team on the planet for any team seeking to breach a defence and not just that, there is another edge to Atlético under Diego Simeone these days. This version of Atlético are not just a team of destroyers anymore, and Simeone has realized it since much of last season that with the players at his disposal, he could go toe-to-toe with most attacks in the world.
From the onset, the pitch was slow, and the ball seemed like it was holding up for the most part, suited perfectly to a team like Atlético. Luis Enrique had gone for a change in formation, with a three-man defence comprising of Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti, and Jeremy Mathieu. Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, and Sergi Roberto formed the base of a midfield diamond, with Messi at its tip. Rafinha Alcántara was stationed on the right flank, with Luis Suárez and Neymar forming a fluidic front three.
Atlético lined up in a familiar 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann and Kévin Gameiro leading the attack. In midfield, Gabi and Koke were flanked by Yannick Carrasco and Saúl Ñíguez. The defensive unit was led by Diego Godín and Stefan Savić and flanked by Filipe Luís and Šime Vrsaljko.
Atlético started like a blaze and another familiar sight was unfolding. Barcelona pushed onto the ropes, and Atlético crowding around them, began landing crosses into the box, curling, crossing, and cutting it back to their onrushing attackers, leaving Barcelona keeper Marc-André ter Stegen as the last line of defence, repelling one Atlético attack after the other. Godín, Griezmann, Gabi, and Carrasco had chances to score the opening goal and the signs looked ominous considering the Blaugrana fielded an altered formation.
Barcelona slowly grew into the game after the 25th minute, occasionally switching to three at the back, with Sergi Roberto tucking into midfield and Rafinha joining up with the front three. The first 25 minutes saw Atlético pressuring the area around the box in order to force ter Stegen to play the ball further up field where they could – more often than not – win the headers and further recycle the ball back to construct another attack. Griezmann and Gameiro all had shots at the goal but the best one came for Griezmann around the 27th minute, a rasping shot which ter Stegen had to go airborne to change its path.
Barcelona had the ball in the back of the net in minute 30, courtesy of a brilliant run by Neymar, who found Messi, who took a first-time shot that came off Jan Oblak. Suárez tried to fight for the ball but ended up handling it before nodding it into the net. Messi took a free kick which was a sure-shot goal, but more heroics from Oblak intervened. On the other end, ter Stegen made another interception, anticipating and getting into position for a cross from Carrasco from the left, to which Koke was an inch away from sweeping into the net. A minute later, there was a re-run of the reel when ter Stegen saved Barcelona the blushes once again, saving well from a Griezmann cross intended for Koke. Ter Stegen had held the Barcelona back line together in a time when Atlético were whipping in crosses from all sides, peppering the Barcelona box while their mazy runs wreaked havoc for the defence. It was reassuring to have the young German in there, the benefits of regular game-time clearly showing, both on his form and confidence in the judgments he makes.
The game started to open up a little, with Atlético no longer looking to press ter Stegen as furiously as before given the space that was being afforded to Neymar and Suárez. It was from one such counter that Suárez charged down the left wing, cutting inside Savić and sending a screamer just inches above Oblak’s far right corner. Suárez showed familiar grit to win a free kick close to the Atlético box. Messi has been on a personal mission of sorts to revive the art and craft of free kick taking in this season particularly, and so it went. It went curling, high and menacingly towards goal. Oblak got enough of his hand in time to force the path of the ball away.
Atlético countered through Gameiro, who was outmuscled by Piqué. The Barcelona defender then immediately turned away from Gameiro and transformed the possession into an all-out build-up. Seconds later, Piqué would have the best chance of scoring from open play that Barcelona had in the first half. A corner kick from the right was headed straight towards the Spaniard’s head, but Piqué only mustered a downward header which Oblak again reacted in time to keep from rising. Barcelona had been pushed back hard by Atlético, and they had held on, like so many games this season, surviving the chaos in the middle, and playing the waiting game, surviving the intense moments when the game is being played in their own half.
Barcelona started showing more promise and intent after the break, with Suárez the unusual culprit, missing a chance which he would have buried on any other day. Neymar had glided down the left wing, finding Messi who found Suárez in space. Suárez hit it wide, wide off Oblak and wide off the post. Meanwhile, ter Stegen looked keen on carrying on his first-half form, with every intention to not let the ball get past him. He denied Griezmann and Saúl in quick succession, saving Barcelona from another counterattack. Atlético were thriving on the counters since Barcelona had begun to keep hold of the ball much better than the first half, and Busquets earned himself a yellow stopping another of those.
As the second half proceeded, Atlético shed away all the talk of conservatism and destruction that had pervaded their play. Instead, Simeone’s men chose to use their incredible pace and goal-threat upfront, plus the combative midfield, to win the ball in crucial positions, as they’ve done for much of this season. However, to their dismay, Atlético found a dogged defence on the other side, a sea of green forming around them every time they forayed into the Barcelona box.
The game switched momentarily, as Barcelona held possession inside the Atlético half for extended periods. Messi shot at Oblak, earning a corner which came to nothing. He broke again a couple of minutes later, evading the tackles and passing to Rafinha, who found a defence ready and closing out all shooting options. Barcelona knocked again; this time, the ball pinballed around the Atlético box. Suárez took a shot which fell to Rafinha, who unleashed a first-time shot past Oblak. The lead didn’t last long as Barcelona conceded a needless free kick near their box, with Busquets being the culprit. Koke sent a curling ball from the left which was met by Godín with the slightest of touches past and away from ter Stegen. Godín, doing what he does best, beat three players to rise and meet Koke’s curler.
Iniesta had been only a participant in the match, never showing his full range of trickery and movement, just about there, but not decisive like his usual self. His return from injury may have been rushed considering the debate surrounding Barcelona and their midfield troubles. Rakitić came on for him, only to be welcomed by a hard tackle from Gabi, the Atlético man earning a yellow card without delay. By the time Rakitić had come on, Barcelona had escaped from the ropes on which Atlético had pushed them, ducking away the punches with some last minute defending while managing to land some punches of their own via the front three and Rafinha, who were running at the Atlético defence every chance they got. Messi began dropping back behind Suárez, Neymar, and Rafinha in order to string the passes towards the arc in front of him. Rafinha sometimes wandered towards the right flank to stretch the Atlético defence out of shape. Godín came to Atlético’s rescue on one such occasion, willing himself to the ball before Messi pulled the trigger from a Suárez pass from the right flank.
It was ironic that the scoreline changed again as soon as André Gomes was on the pitch. The youngster has been on the receiving end of criticism from many quarters of late, some valid, most not so much. This time, though, he came on with what some people refer to as fortune on his back. A Barcelona free kick was sent into the Atlético box, with the ball suddenly pinging around without anyone claiming it before Umtiti took control and teed up Suárez. The Uruguayan cut the ball back to Messi, and his first time shot was blocked by Savić. The ball, however, rolled back to Messi, who just had to poke it past Oblak and bring the game to the scoreline that has been the norm in games between these two sides, a 2-1 to Barcelona with little more than 5 minutes to go. Atlético made a late attempt at salvaging a point, trying hard to crowd the box and pummel the crosses in, but Barcelona held on for maximum points.
It was not the best of performances from Barcelona, and just on the evidence of the first half, it would have been difficult to see the Catalans emerge with all three points. They had, however, grown into the game, and Atlético had tired, in both mind and body. Simeone’s men were unable to keep their press for the full 90 minutes, and that was where Barcelona saw the room to enter the game. Atlético had been stretched beyond Simeone would have wanted to, losing their much vaunted compactness in defence as the game grew, which, in turn, allowed that front three more space than they ever expected. In the end, it was a deserved result because Barcelona had slowly made the game their own, easing away Atlético’s grip, ensuring that they were not camped in their own half repelling attacks. When the time came, Messi had stepped up as usual, leaving Simeone with that familiar and wicked sense of déjà vu.