It took just 10 minutes for Fernando Torres’ celebrations to turn from sheer jubilation to utter despondency, from hero to villain and ultimately, it took 10 minutes to turn Atletico Madrid’s Champions League quarter-final tie against Barcelona, quite literally, on its head.
As Los Colchoneros’ favourite son was forced to watch on from the dressing rooms, it was his opposite number, Luis Suarez, who too could have been condemned to a similar fate in a hot-headed performance, secure a comeback victory for a fatiguing Blaugrana line-up with a simple tap in the 63rd minute before heading past Jan Oblak in the 74th minute.
The result could easily have been different, but as has been the case in the past few fixtures between the two rivals, Diego Simeone’s men lost their cool. Sensing an opportunity to draw first blood following the Catalans’ weekend Clasico defeat, and with confidence high after a 5-1 drubbing of Real Betis, Simeone sent out an aggressive line-up keen on disrupting Barcelona’s style from the off.
And it worked as Koke exposed Gerard Pique’s poor positioning and the Barca’s under-pressure defence to set up Torres, who nut-megged goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen on route to goal.
Torres, at 32 and far from his peak, was seemingly rolling back the years, netting his 11th goal against Barcelona, his experience more telling than his age. But boy did things go downhill from there.
The former Liverpool forward picked up his first yellow card for cynically hacking down Neymar in his own half moments after scoring before seeing red six minutes later for lunging his whole body into Sergio Busquets.
Like Sergio Ramos on Saturday, Torres would do the lonely walk across the pitch, up the stairs of the tunnel before passing the chapel and left through into the Press room to watch the remainder of the match. But unlike the Madrid defender – who gleefully mused that he would’ve earned a red card earlier had he known Real Madrid would win with 10 men – the striker had no comfort.
Torres, should’ve known better, but on a high, and in the spur of the moment, he, like many of his teammates before him, couldn’t contain himself. Atletico can, indeed, play well with 10 men – nine, even. Back in January, they nearly grabbed a positive result with two men down for half an hour. This time, the stakes were different.
Enrique’s men could not suffer back-to-back humiliations from Madrid sides and so they seized their advantage, thrusting their full-backs forward on the overlap. Atletico couldn’t do much to cover the defenders without offering up space for Messi, Neymar and the like.
Dani Alves, notoriously inconsistent with his crosses, hit his stride with the space available, finding Jordi Alba at the back post to set up the first goal before knocking in an inch-perfect cross for the side’s second to seal a comeback win.
As for Atletico, it was their second time in two months they’ve secured an early 1-0 lead over Barca only to be beaten 2-1. It was also the second time they’ve ended up with men down in this fixture in the past 15 months. As for Simeone, his side have lost seven straight to Barca since Enrique came in as Coach.
That record doesn’t look likely to improve any time soon. Atletico’s robust yet oft ill-disciplined approach in the biggest clashes is seemingly holding them back from beating the best on a regular basis. Tuesday’s loss was, once again, indicative of a chronic problem Cholo has yet to address.