First played second as Barcelona welcomed rivals Atletico Madrid to the Nou Camp for a high-profile and potentially crucial game in the race for La Liga title. The Blaugrana headed into this game with a five-point lead over their opponents, and the Rojiblancos knew that they could really light up the title race with a win in this game. It was to be a match of high stakes and one that promised to be a fiery and entertaining affair.
A cagey start to a high-profile encounter
With so much at stake for the two sides that had both been in excellent form heading into this game, it was little surprise that the opening exchanges were tentative and cagey, with nobody wanting to make a mistake. There was also little surprise to be experienced when viewing the early possession stats, with Barcelona setting into the lion’s share of the ball and seeking to control the game right from the off.
The home side probed the Atletico Madrid defence relentlessly in the first 10 minutes but they struggled to create any clear-cut chances. A driven cross from Philippe Coutinho ricocheted awkwardly towards the net off Diego Godin, forcing a smart save from Jan Oblak, but that was the closest that the Blaugrana came early on, despite their dominance.
Atleti meanwhile created even less going forward, and they rarely saw possession in Barcelona’s half. Diego Costa consequently cut an isolated and lonely figure up top, while Antoine Griezmann dropped deep to help out defensively and seek the ball. Whenever the Rojiblancos did attack they were soon swarmed by Barca defenders, and both sides showed off their defensive ability as the first half ticked on.
Masterful Messi hands Barcelona the lead
With the game having turned into a defensive stalemate it eventually took a moment of sheer class from Lionel Messi to break the deadlock. A costly foul by Thomas Partey on the edge of the box provided the legendary Argentine with a perfectly placed free kick opportunity, and the forward subsequently curled the ball expertly into the top corner, beating the diving Jan Oblak. It was a masterful effort, and one that gave Barcelona a vital lead against an Atletico Madrid side that isn’t famed for its attacking prowess.
The goal also served to open the game up slightly as Atleti were forced to go slightly more on the offensive in an attempt to get back into the game. Tempers flared after the opener too as a number of feisty challenges went in, and both Messi and Sime Vrsaljko were booked in quick succession following some clumsy tackles.
The tempo of the game soon increased to match the intensity of the play, and it was Barcelona who benefitted. Coutinho almost bagged a second for the Blaugrana with a venomous shot from the left hand side of the box, but Oblak was equal to the Brazilian’s effort. To their credit the visitors did push for an equaliser on the stroke of half time, and Diego Costa was often one decent pass away from being through on goal, but ultimately neither side could create anything decisive in the final moments before the break.
Atleti push for an equaliser after the break
The 1-0 deficit at the half meant that Atletico Madrid had to come out for the second period seeking an equaliser, which in turn allowed Barcelona to begin to open up more and more spaces in the visitors’ defensive front. Diego Simeone’s men looked the better side in the early minutes of the second half as they pegged Barca back in their own half, piling pressure on the home side, but failing to create much penetration with their attacking moves.
It didn’t take long for the attacking pressure to fade and for Barcelona to settle back into control of the game, and they maintained a lot of possession in the midfield areas to frustrate the visitors. When Atleti did win back possession however they piled men forward in support of their attacking players, and there was little doubt of Simeone’s intentions to get a positive result from this crucial game, especially as Angel Correa was introduced for fullback Sime Vrsaljko.
Barcelona close out a narrow and crucial victory
As Atletico Madrid continued to put all of their effort into attacking, the game became a completely different affair to the first half. Barcelona began to look shaky as the pressure mounted, and Messi and his fellow forwards saw less and less of the ball as the clock ticked down. Simeone soon introduced Kevin Gameiro for the captain Gabi, meaning that the visitors had four recognised strikers on the field for the last 20 minutes. For all their desire and attacking impetus however the visitors still struggled to create any clear-cut chances, and Antoine Griezmann’s snatched effort from the edge of the box, which flew high over the bar, was the closest that Atleti came to finding an equaliser.
It was actually Barcelona who went closest after a breakdown in play following a corner, from which Luis Suarez had the ball in the back of the net, only to be flagged offside. Sergio Busquets followed that up with a volleyed effort at the back post, which was saved smartly by Oblak, but the momentum stayed firmly with the visitors as they weathered this brief storm and continued their quest for an equaliser. Gameiro thought he had found it when he fired a shot into the net from close range, but the whistle had already gone for a foul by Diego Costa. In the end that was to be the closest the Rojiblancos came to a goal, and Barcelona ran out as winners in a game that could well have decided the league.
For Barcelona this was perhaps the most valuable three points that they have picked up this season as it extended the gap to eight points at the top of La Liga with just 11 games to play. The win could well have handed them the title, especially with Real Madrid so far off the pace, and it was an excellent defensive performance in the face of a lot of Atletico Madrid pressure.
This was a strange game for Atleti as they seemed to play two completely different games in each half. For the first half they allowed Barcelona to utterly dominate, and ultimately paid the price as Messi’s free kick proved the difference. A valiant fight back in the second half was not enough however, and the Rojiblancos may well have just conceded the title.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen, Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta (Gomes, 36’), Rakitic, Messi, Suarez, Coutinho (Paulinho, 84’)
Atletico Madrid: Oblak, Vrsaljko (Correa, 59’), Gimenez, Godin, Luis (Hernandez, 75’), Saul. Thomas, Gabi (Gameiro, 66’), Koke, Costa, Griezmann
Goals: Messi (1-0, 26’)
Referee: Gil Manzano
Yellow Cards: Messi (30’), Vrsaljko (31’), Gimenez (57’), Rakitic (69’)
Red Cards: None
Barcelona: Ter Stegen 7, Roberto 7, Pique 7, Umtiti 7, Alba 7, Busquets 7, Iniesta 7 (Gomes), Rakitic 7, Messi 8.5, Suarez 6.5, Coutinho 6 (Paulinho n/a)
Atletico Madrid: Oblak 8, Vrsaljko 6 (Correa 6), Gimenez 7, Godin 7, Luis 7 (Hernandez n/a), Saul 7. Thomas 7, Gabi 7 (Gameiro n/a), Koke 6, Costa 5.5, Griezmann 6.5
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