By the end, Atlético Madrid were running at them from all sides but when the final whistle went Barcelona emerged from the Vicente Calderón with a 2-1 victory that gives them a valuable advantage going into next week’s Copa del Rey semi-final, second leg.
They came for an away goal and they got it; they got a victory, too. For most of the first half that looked guaranteed, but as the second progressed and Atlético pressed, it appeared to be slipping from their fingers. Ultimately, though, two superb goals, first from Luis Suárez and then from Lionel Messi gave them a led that could not be overcome here. Antoine Griezmann’s header was not enough. This was, to apply the old cliche, a game of two halves; it is a tie of two halves too, and the second is still to come.
“Everything depends on scoring there,” Luis Enrique had said. On six minutes, they had. Javier Mascherano, replacing the injured Sergio Busquets in the midfield role that was his own once upon a time, reached to poke the ball away from Griezmann. Atlético were pushed quite high – they had been seeking to progress on the left, the Frenchman turning inside with possession – and the ball ran to Suárez but this was no chance, not yet.
The Uruguayan was standing on the halfway line when he let the ball run past him and went at the centre-backs, heading inside past Diego Godín with his first touch and then nudging beyond Stefan Savic with his second. Drawn in but arriving late, the ball went one side while Suárez the other and into the wide space beyond. With the outside of his right foot, he guided it low into the corner. Miguel Ángel Moyà could not stop it. Forty yards, four touches and an away goal.
The start could not have been better and the ball was mostly Barcelona’s, with Messi so often in contact, dropping deep to play. At times, he appeared to be walking, but that did not reduce Atlético’s concern; he accelerated and braked again at a speed that they could not match and, bursting through or drifting inside, found team-mates. Behind him, Mascherano and Ivan Rakitic gave security and behind them, Samuel Umtiti.
As for Atlético, they have lacked their vital signs of late, as if they are not themselves, and that continued here. The organisation, pressure, solidity and security had gone; Barcelona seemed unusually comfortable. There was less of that intensity with which Atlético have become identified, although Neymar might not agree with that judgment. On the left, the Brazilian flew. Sometimes they made him fly: the most fouled player in La Liga, this was familiar to him.
He was getting somewhere, though. He had one shot that was comfortably saved by Moyà and then, dashing forward, released Suárez inside the area. With Neymar and Messi racing up alongside him, the question was who Suárez’s intercepted pass was meant for. His gesture afterwards suggested Messi, the further away of the two, but a more pertinent question might have been why he passed at all: the shot was on, more so for him than for either of his team-mates.
That chance came just before the half-hour; the next came just after it when Messi, on the right edge of the penalty area, did something superb but not something Messi does often – he absolutely thumped it, his shot screeching in off the far post to make it 2-0.
Diego Simeone reacted by sending on Fernando Torres for the full-back Sime Vrsaljko. Torres went up front with Griezmann, while Koke and Yannick Carrasco played wide, and he made the opening chance of the second half. Gabi played it in to him and kept running, Torres finding him with a neat back-heel. Ten yards out, Jordi Alba just managed to block the shot. From the corner, Koke’s shot was scrambled away by Jasper Cillessen.
This felt different now; it sounded different, too. The Calderón saw hope, although they also saw Mascherano dashing through, an impressive, unexpected run not getting such an impressive finish. Soon, there was real belief. Gabi’s free-kick was clipped diagonally to the right side of the area, beyond Suárez who was blocked by Koke, and Godín leapt to head across the six-yard box where Griezmann jumped to score. Simeone raised his arms to the fans and they raised the roof.
Griezmann could hardly believe that he did not score a second, hitting Cillessen from three yards. Filipe Luís’s pull back from the left had been impeccable. The momentum was Atlético’s, first to the ball, pressing Barcelona back, not allowing them out easily. Griezmann shot wide, Carrasco’s overhead kick cleared the crossbar, and Filipe Luís’s ball flashed across the face of goal. In the meantime, Neymar picked up a yellow card that will keep him out of the second leg.
That might not have mattered had Messi’s free-kick gone in with 15 minutes to go, but Moyà somehow managed to push it up against the bar. Or if Neymar had finished when Messi wriggled past three players on the edge of the area immediately after, but he leant back and lifted the ball well over the top, a wonderful chance gone. Rafinha, replacing André Gomes, had only been on five minutes, but his impact was already being felt; Barcelona had regained a little control. Presence, at least. Or so it seemed.
Not that it was finished, far from it. Instead, Atlético rebelled once more. Another free-kick, quickly taken by Neymar, floated over, before at the other end Kévin Gameiro’s bicycle kick went wide from six yards after Cillessen made a mess of his throw-out. Then came the first of three moments for Torres as the game went into the final 10 minutes. First, his volleyed backheel just curled away from the far post, then he looked to be away on the left only to be pulled back for a foul on Gerard Piqué that looked very light indeed, and next a shot flashed wide of the post from 18 yards.
Gabi had made the chance, pressuring Mascherano as Barcelona looked to play out. They were uncomfortable now, hardly able to come up for air, hanging on, and Atlético kept on coming. In the 88th minute, Griezmann’s shot, heading towards the keeper’s left-hand post, curled close by. In the 89th, Gameiro’s shot whizzed past the other post. There was no time for more; in six days, there will be.
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