The main talking point before Barcelona’s Champions League encounter in Glasgow last night was the absence of Lionel Messi and the difference it would make to the outcome of the match. How would they adapt their game to deal with the missing Argentine as a creative outlet and goalscorer?
Coach Tata Martino gave Cesc Fabregas a start in the ‘false 9’ role he has played with mixed results for the Spanish national side, alongside Neymar and Pedro Rodriguez but, from the outset it was clear that the Catalans would dominate the game with or without the ball and suffocate their opponents by depriving them of the oxygen of possession.
Barca were beaten at the same stadium in last year’s competition when they showed their vulnerability in defence, both at set pieces and when the Glaswegians counter-attacked. The home side looked dangerous again on the break in the early stages last night but Barcelona were able to apply pressure with their passing movement and dominance in possession.
Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez ran the midfield with their usual efficiency and technical ability, passing as quickly and accurately as ever but, despite having most of the possession, without Messi as the focal point there was a lack of cutting edge or end product.
Barca continued to press relentlessly, upping the intensity on their opponents, running the game and keeping the ball with the belief that they would eventually score. They still looked shaky at times in defence, where Marc Bartra was playing in place of the injured Javier Mascherano and James Forrest drew a brilliant save from Victor Valdes before Charlie Mulgrew, unmarked, fired narrowly wide.
There was relief though with substitute Alexis Sanchez receiving a slide rule pass from Neymar to cross for Fabregas at the back post to head into the far corner, Martino having fortuitously opted to delay the former Arsenal man’s substitution. It was the Catalans’ first meaningful counter-attack.
Meanwhile in Portugal, Atletico Madrid paced their performance beautifully in coming from behind to defeat a strong Porto side at the Dragao after the Portuguese champions had made the better start. With their high-tempo pressing game, reminiscent of Barcelona’s at times, they threatened to overrun Atleti in the early stages.
Diego Simeone’s men are playing with such swagger, intensity and confidence that going a goal behind early failed to deter them. In fact, it may have been an incentive as Atleti slowly grew into the game and began pinning Porto back inside their own half. They showed more attacking intent and Diego Godin’s equaliser was their reward. By the time Arda Turan popped up with the winner, there was only one team in it.
Matching Barca in La Liga, Atletico could spring a surprise in the Champions League. Their group is not the hardest and, playing with the right blend of finesse and aggression, they are a team that believes beyond any doubt that they will not lose. That is something else they share in common with the Catalan masters.