Barcelona inch past unfortunate Atletico Madrid as magical Lionel Messi strikes late yet again
La Liga in focus: A below par Barcelona were frustrated for virtually the whole of their league match against Atletico. And then Messi changed everything
Atletico had the better chances in the first half, with Diego Simeone’s side playing the game on their terms, and their pressing shutting down Barca’s midfield almost completely.
But, as so often in this fixture, Messi popped up at the vital moment as the game got stretched late on, to fire in a winner which keeps Barca neck and neck with Real Madrid at the top of the La Liga standings.
Unlike in many games so far this season, Atletico started really well, and pushed Barca right back through the opening stages. Both Ivan Rakitic and Arthur were muscled out of possession in their own half, leading directly to half-chances for Atletico. Frenkie De Jong was also unable to get close to the pace of the game, with Atletico’s Hector Herrera a dominant force.
But they were unable to make such tactical and territorial domination count, mostly due to the latest of Barcelona goalkeeper Marc Andre Ter Stegen’s tremendous point blank saves from Mario Hermoso and Alvaro Morata. The woodwork also came to the visitors’ rescue when left-back Junior Firpo – who was having a horrorshow evening – almost diverted Hermoso’s cross-shot into his own net.
Barca were really missing the suspended Sergio Busquets, whose previous three absences this season had coincided with their three La Liga defeats at Athletic Bilbao, Granada and Levante.
It is not that Busquets always looks to be in control of things when he is on the pitch, especially as the 31-year-old struggles to cover the ground when opposition teams have the ball. But he clearly brings intelligence and composure to the whole team, with his positioning and passing range basically organising the other nine outfield players, and allowing Messi to get on with his thing.
Messi was being pretty well shut down through the first half at a very rainy Wanda. Barca were again only dangerous through set-pieces, with Gerard Pique hitting the crossbar from a header near half-time.
Busquets was missing due to a suspension for accumulated bookings. And there is a reason for that. Pique was booked midway through the first half when he was done by a gorgeous piece of Joao Felix skill and had to pull back the young Portuguese due to a lack of cover. That was the centre-back’s 10th yellow card in 17 games in 2019/20 – when he was booked just seven times in 52 matches last term.
Unable to control games at the moment through possession, Barca’s experienced central core kept having to resort to tactical fouls to stop opponents breaking. Ernesto Valverde’s team are not keeping care of possession well enough and not able to construct moves with their customary acuteness. Then they are not positioned well enough when they lose the ball, hence the need for tactical fouls from their most experienced central players.
It is not that De Jong and Arthur are not excellent players. Both have excellent technical quality, and the ability to pick a pass. They both look like Barca DNA midfielders. But they have not yet learned – or not been taught – how to play midfield in the team’s particular 4-3-3 shape.
Barca have not been this far from their usual selves since 2013/14 when they sleep-walked through the season with Gerard ‘Tata’ Martino as coach. That season saw Atletico win their only La Liga title of the last 25 years due to a ruthless ability to find an opposition weakness and pummel it.
This latest new-look Atleti do not do that. Joao Felix is undeniably talented but not an obvious fit for Simeone’s style of football. Diego Costa is injured again currently, but nowhere near his form of five years ago anyway. Morata is in decent nick at the moment, but did his best work Sunday evening well away from Barca’s goal. 13 teams have currently scored more goals in LaLiga.
Losing last year’s top scorer was of course a problem for Simeone, and Antoine Griezmann was predictably whistled on his return to the Wanda. The Frenchman kept running all night, but sent his best chance high into the Frente Atletico ultras who were spending much of the game chanting that he should ‘die’.
Barca had more of the ball in the second half, but the pattern of the game was not that different. Both Rakitic and Clement Lenglet were booked for more tactical fouls on Morata, who was regularly able to take control of long balls, get turned, and start causing havoc.
The former Chelsea man was also taken out by Pique near the sideline, with the home fans screaming for a second yellow, which referee Mateu Lahoz somehow decided against showing. Presumably realising he had erred, the usually card-happy official soon afterwards declined to send off Atletico substitute Vitolo for a high challenge on Pique which meant he limped off with a knee problem.
Just when it seemed that it was going to be a 0-0, Atletico pushed more players forward, and Thomas Lemar’s really poor cross gave Barca possession. Seconds later Messi was sprinting with the ball deep into opposition territory, played a one-two with a previously anonymous Luis Suarez, whose return pass was perfect for a sweetly curled pass to the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
It came out of nothing, but was also hardly a surprise. Messi now has 30 career goals in 35 games against Atletico, many of them crucial strikes which have broken rojiblanco hearts.
Through recent seasons Simeone’s side have also managed to disrupt Barca pretty well, only to suffer a hammer-blow late on. Last season Suarez opened the scoring with just five minutes remaining at the Camp Nou, having equalised in the 82nd minute in the reverse fixture. Ousmane Dembele’s equaliser the previous year at the Wanda came in added time.
“These are three super important points,” Valverde told Sunday’s post-game news conference. “You suffer here, but the team held on. We tried to play our game, and for them not to surprise us on the counter. Atletico are a great side, but bit by bit we overcame them. We want to control games, but when it opens up, and Leo and Luis have the ball, we are very dangerous.”
Atletico keep pushing Barca close, but without much reward, and Simeone has now gone 16 La Liga games without a victory against the blaugrana. Rojiblanco keeper Jan Oblak has kept clean sheets against 26 of the 27 Spanish teams he has faced, but not Messi and company.
Sunday’s result left Atletico down in sixth place in the table, six points behind joint-leaders Barca and Madrid, who still have December 18’s Clasico at the Camp Nou as a game in hand.
“I am calm as I know the team gave everything, worked as the coach asked them,” said El Cholo afterwards. “Sometime it will happen that the ball will go in, instead of hitting a post. We must realise we are in a transitional year, and have patience.”
The signings of Griezmann and De Jong were also meant to ‘transition’ Barca to a new style of play. That has yet to happen, but Messi’s genius remains constant. So Sunday’s matchwinner should be extra happy as he heads to Paris on Monday afternoon for a likely sixth career Ballon d’Or trophy.