Six times Barcelona came up against Atletico Madrid last season and six times they failed to defeat Diego Simeone's title winners and Champions League finalists. Equally surprising was Lionel Messi failing to score once against a team he'd previously been prolific against.
On Sunday night, when Barca really needed a lift following last week’s defeat at Real Sociedad and turbulent days at Camp Nou that saw key club figures depart, early elections called and Messi linked with a transfer, Barca did what they do best. They played an outstanding, high pressured attacking game to beat champions Atletico 3-1 in front of 81,658 in an entertaining, if ill-tempered, encounter which saw nine bookings.
Barca’s sparkling attacking triumvirate of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, who made as many unedifying headlines in 2014 as they did positive ones about their mercurial footballing talents, all scored in a performance which saw the Catalans stay within a point of leaders Real Madrid, who have a game in hand. Crucially, they moved three clear of Atletico who lost for the fourth time in the league this season.
Barca had stressed beforehand that there were no issues between Messi and his boss Luis Enrique but fans weren’t convinced. Messi and Enrique reiterated that there were no problems after the victory, but results can – and did – change everything.
Enrique was all smiles after the match while Messi, who'd been presented with an award for being the all-time leading scorer in Spain's La Liga pre-match, said: "There have always been rumours and I've never spoken out to deny anything before. It's been reported that I've had bad relationships with Guardiola, with Eto'o, Ibrahimovic and that I've asked the club to get rid of a lot of people. That's not true. And it is far from true about Luis Enrique. I'm a player like any other in the dressing room, just like any of my teammates. I don't make decisions or demands to those who do make them. I've also heard rumours that my father has spoken with City and Chelsea. It's all lies".
His denials won’t convince all, but Messi can say what he likes. He’s the most powerful man at Camp Nou and fans sing his name every game, as they did during the impressive victory. He had the game’s first chance in the 9th minute but shot wide as his team started well. Barca were ahead three minutes later when Messi cut the ball back to Suarez who struggled to control it before it fell to Neymar, who didn’t.
The Brazilian briefly left the field with blood seeping from an ankle injury, returning to head the ball wide from a floated Suarez cross after 23 minutes. The Uruguayan showed sublime skill in the build up and was rewarded for his best display in Barca colours with his side’s second after 35 minutes. After receiving the ball from Sergio Busquets, Messi ran at Atletico’s defence and passed left to Suarez who finished clinically. The visiting defenders protested that Messi had handled the ball, but to no avail.
Barca were at their best and Atletico, playing their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, improved in the second period at the stadium where they were crowned champions last May. But while the visitors clawed a goal back, coming from two behind appeared improbable. Mario Mandzukic’s 57th minute penalty smashed high into the centre of Claudio Bravo’s net gave his side hope. It had been greeted with roars of indignation prompting Enrique to say: “I’ve never heard the Camp Nou roar as much as when Atletico got a penalty. I like it when the crowd is behind the team.”
When the Croatian celebrated by putting his finger to his lips to indicate silence to the huge crowd, they responded with more abuse. However, the spectators raised the roof of Camp Nou again three minutes from time when Messi, who’d conceded the penalty with a foul on left-back Jesus Gamez’s ankle, capped an awkward week with Barca’s third in the 87th minute.
The Argentine man of the match received a ball from Suarez, before attempting a one-two with Ivan Rakitic which Raul Garcia deflected back towards Messi. With Atletico’s defenders stretched, Messi doesn’t miss chances like that. His drought against the champions was over. Barca’s latest crisis is also over - for the time being at least.
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