The first 55 minutes of last night’s Champions League quarter-final first-leg between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou provided further confirmation of how closely matched the top two sides in La Liga are, as the business end of the season looms ever nearer. The first half recalled the two-legged early-season Supercopa which the Catalans won only on away goals and January’s goalless stalemate at Vicente Calderon.
After the break, however, in a game proving every bit as cagey as those previous three meetings, Atletico midfielder Diego Ribas produced a goal of sublime quality, firing a screamer beyond the despairing dive of Jose Manuel Pinto from well outside the area.
Ironically, the Brazilian was only on the pitch because of an earlier gamble that had backfired. Diego Costa’s thigh strain had made him a doubtful starter and Atleti’s top scorer duly limped off after just half an hour.
Barcelona dominated possession, as they always do, completing around 600 passes during the 90 minutes, three times more than their opponents. But the first-half, and not for the first time, Tata Martino’s men failed to convert their superiority on the ball into goals as Atletico looked the livelier side. Then after Diego’s wonder strike, Diego Simeone’s resilient and gutsy side threatened to leave Camp Nou with both a first-leg advantage and a valuable away goal.
Like a wounded animal, Barcelona are often at their most dangerous when the opposition have scored and, instead of turning the screw, Atleti were unable to resist the onslaught as Barca upped the pressure. Alexis replaced Fabregas to increase their attacking options, but it was Andres Iniesta who created the leveller, his diagonal ball slicing Atletico open for Neymar, who made no mistake with an angled finish into the corner.
Their away goal gives Atleti a slender advantage at the halfway mark in the tie but, for the first time this season, something more substantial will have to separate the two teams when they meet again in a week’s time, even if it is the outcome of a penalty shootout, something that cannot be ruled out. Atletico last night demonstrated why they have the best defensive record in both the Champions League and La Liga this season.
Simeone’s pre-match analysis had correctly identified that Barcelona's game is built around their possession of the ball while Atletico’s relies on closing down the space their opponents are looking to create. The inseparability of the two sides, and hence the lack of goals between them, is a reflection of how well both sets of players fulfil those roles. It is also why, when goals do come, they tend to be creative and spectacular, as both were last night.
Perhaps the spectacular, the flair, is something his critics accuse Martino of having coached out of Barca as the Argentine has looked to stamp his mark on the Barca in his first season in charge. At the same time, Atleti’s star quality is made in Brazil. David Villa worked hard to lead the line once Costa departed, but Simeone’s failed gamble in starting Costa ultimately did not matter with Diego waiting in the wings to replace him.
Atletico have been a revelation in this year’s Champions League and, unusually, Barca may not start the second leg as favourites. That will suit Martino, but anything other than victory will heap pressure upon him.