Heavyweights battle and leave bruised in Barcelona v Atletico Madrid encounter
Europe’s first title showdown of the season between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in Spain’s Primera Liga was an even affair for the first 40 minutes. From the first whistle, both sides were switched on and at full strength.
They probed, they passed their way forward or out of trouble, they closed down space in front of a crowd of 89,421, the biggest in European football so far this season. The contest was competitive but played in the right spirit, with no yellow cards for the first hour.
Both teams were busy in the transfer market in the close season, yet only one new signing – Kevin Gameiro – started the match. This was an encounter for the wily, experienced heads. Leading Spanish sides have rotated heavily this season, but players have to earn their stripes to start in the biggest matches.
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It would take something special to open up Atletico, Diego Simeone’s side keeping 26 clean sheets last season and boasting the best defence in Spain with only one goal conceded in their first four matches. They were organised, compact and deep, ensuring Barcelona struggled to find space on a warm Catalan night.
Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez were marked closely, though they began to move the ball more quickly before the break. The onus was on Barca to break down their foes, for Luis Enrique to make it five wins from five in league games against Atletico.
Barca even tried leaving defender Gerard Pique up front after corners to disrupt their obdurate opponents, but the 2014 champions held firm until five minutes before the break.
That’s when Barca worked a short corner, with Andres Iniesta receiving the ball. His boss Luis Enrique described him as “the most inventive player in Spanish football”.
“He’s like Harry Potter. 1-2-3, and whoosh, he’s past the player. It’s like he has a magic wand.”
Iniesta worked his magic, finding space away from Gameiro and quickly whipping a fast, high cross towards the Atleti goal. Moving towards the ball was Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian got away from Gabi to head his second goal of the season, his 50th in Spanish football. It was the first goal Atletico had conceded in 400 minutes.
Barca were ahead and buoyed also by Real Madrid dropping points at home to Villarreal earlier in the evening, the first time in 17 matches that Zinedine Zidane’s side hadn’t won. Zidane said he hoped for a draw between his team’s main rivals, but at half-time that looked unlikely.
Barca would lose Sergio Busquets and Messi, who’d scored 25 times in 30 games against Atletico, to injury. The latter is expected to be out for three weeks. Simeone quickly sought to exploit this, bringing on strikers Fernando Torres and Angel Correa after 60 minutes. The pair made an instant impact, Torres showing his intelligence by leaving a quickly taken free-kick for Correa who took advantage of a slip from compatriot Javier Mascherano to wrong foot Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Barca lost their shape when they lost two of their best players. Unbeaten Atleti were more emboldened, but Barca enjoyed 70 per cent of possession. They also had Neymar, a man of whom Simeone observed: “He sings, he dances and he destroys you” before the game.
The danger was always there, Pique glanced a header past the far post seven minutes from time from a Neymar cross. Suarez was wound up, usually by his compatriot Diego Godin. These two modern enemies knew much about each other’s foibles.
In the end, both sides wore each other down in a game of attrition, a fair result after the two heavyweights gave their all.
Rival players hugged on the turf at the end, their respect for each other clear. They’ve consistently been two of the best teams in the world in the last four years.
The last time the two drew 1-1 at Camp Nou, Atletico lifted the title on a dramatic final day in 2014. This time, they still have 34 league games to play.
They’ll both have many far easier games than this engrossing but bruising encounter.
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Published: September 22, 2016 04:00 AM