Jan Oblak saw it approaching like a heat-seeking missile and witnessed everyone in red and white clearing a path.
But it was only when Oblak tipped the narrative wide of his left-hand post that you sensed this would be Atletico Madrid’s day, and perhaps it will still be their season.
On the day that Neymar ruled out a return to Barcelona by signing a new Paris Saint-Germain contract, the stage was set at Camp Nou for Lionel Messi, and my word he almost scored an unforgettable goal.
Oblak, however, had other ideas, and unlike his team-mates he found a way to defy the Barcelona captain without resorting to brazenly foul means.
It would have been one for the Messi showreel, a sensational charge infield from the right flank taking him at lightning speed through the massed ranks of the visitors and to the edge of the penalty area, before the Barca forward ripped a shot that was arrowing into the corner.
Oblak sprung into action and plunged to his left, Atletico indebted to their last line of defence. The Slovenian is the wall that few find cracks in, the player as vital to their success as anyone, the glovesman who has kept clean sheets in both LaLiga clashes with Barcelona this season and 18 shutouts in 35 league games so far.
In front of him, Atletico’s players know their roles, even if in that one instance they could not get close to Messi.
Typically here, the tactic was to halt Messi by fair means or foul. Given he has scored a remarkable 21 league goals already in 2021, that seemed a reasonable ploy from Diego Simeone’s troops.
Saul Niguez, Felipe and Koke were each booked for identikit fouls on the 33-year-old, recognising he was in full stride and rationalising that was an unhealthy state of affairs for Atletico. Geoffrey Kondogbia tripped Messi on the edge of the box in the 89th minute, but there would be no dramatic finale, the assailed Argentinian ripping a free-kick wide of the top left corner.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) May 8, 2021
So it finished nil-nil and that might be interpreted as the dream outcome for Real Madrid, who sit third for now but would join Atletico on 77 points should they defeat fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday.
For Barcelona, they are counting on their title rivals falling at the last now, with three rounds remaining. They would have gone top with a win here, but instead remain two points shy of Atletico.
Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente threatened in the first half for Atletico at Camp Nou, and the visitors had an abundance of the ball early in the second period too, but the chance of the game was probably the one that Barcelona substitute Ousmane Dembele headed over in the 85th minute, getting on the end of a cross that left-back Jordi Alba stood up to the far post but sending his effort far too high.
When the big chances fall to Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, playing like a competition winner against his former club here at times, there are days when that can spell terrible trouble for Barcelona.
Griezmann has now failed to score in the 12 LaLiga matches he has played against Atletico.
How Messi must wish he still had Luis Suarez by his side rather than on the opposing team.
Suarez, who was hurried out of Barcelona and welcomed with open arms by Atletico last September, was welcomed back to his old stamping ground with a big-screen video montage of some of his finest moments for the club.
He had a game-high four shots, three of which hit the target, and generally made a jolly old nuisance of himself without looking at his sharpest.
Messi was devastated to lose Suarez last year, but he has put that dismay behind him in recent months, with coach Ronald Koeman coaxing the best out of his talisman.
Barcelona now have 50 points from 20 LaLiga games in 2021, but their chaotic start to the season is catching up with them again. Too many points were dropped then, and for Barcelona to snatch the title this felt like a must-win game.
Koeman had an eagle’s eye view, sitting high in the stands as he completed his touchline ban, unable to impose his presence and forced to settle for stalemate.
Like Oblak against the Messi missile, perhaps he saw it coming.
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