Atleti advance deservedly

As Nicola Rizzoli called full time, inevitably jubilation followed. One suspected it would but perhaps to send a message to his players to not get carried away with it all, Diego Simeone headed straight down the tunnel.

Speaking later on, the Argentine’s words said as much. “This is a great achievement but it is nothing extraordinary… I hope there is more to come,” he said.

It really is not so out of the ordinary. Certainly Atletico have just beaten a Barcelona side that seemed unstoppable a fortnight ago. But they have been here before. Rewind two years back and it was Simeone’s team that dumped the Cules out of the Champions League as they went all the way to the final. They have just done it again and now are in the last four of the Champions League for only the third time in their history. It is an achievement but nothing extraordinary.

And winning is the currency in which Atleti deal these days. Since 2012, Simeone has led his side to Europa League success and one League title. In total he has claimed five major honours and he and his players are gunning for more. Based on what we saw at Vicente Calderon, you would have good reason to believe this side could go even further. Certainly, Simeone and his players are not lacking any belief.

They not only clearly believed in advancing, but, by the end of the 90 minutes they clearly deserved it too. Atleti completely outplayed the current La Liga leaders in the opening period as they looked the only team likely to score. And score they did. An exquisite outside of the foot cross from Saul Niguez – who perhaps had his biggest performance so far in his burgeoning career – was met by Antoine Griezmann, who deftly directed the ball beyond Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.

It was not until the hour mark that Barcelona actually started to take some initiative as the game settled into a more familiar pattern – Barca dominating possession and Atleti sitting and defending deep and exploding on the counter.

Still, as they went forward La Blaugrana could not carve out enough opportunities as the goal eluded them. Atletico, meanwhile, started to pose a growing threat on the break as Luis Enrique pushed his team forward.

Two minutes from time, Atletico did stretch the Barca defence again as they broke forward and instinctively Andres Iniesta kept his arm out to handle the ball and stop Filipe Luis’ pass from reaching Griezmann. Rizzoli awarded a penalty, Iniesta was given a caution though a good case for a red could be made, and Griezmann made no mistake from the spot.

The game was not without more suffering for Atleti – for whom suffering used to be par for the course but not these days – before they could celebrate. Iniesta dinked the ball forward but Gabi’s outstretched arm impeded its trajectory from within the box. On another day, it is a penalty. Not on Wednesday night.

The Press went into hysterics. AS claimed Barca were robbed while Mundo Deportivo suggested the referee played his part. And sure he did, but, as is so often in such games, sometimes the decision goes for you and sometimes it does not.

Controversy aside, Atletico were the best side on the night. Barca looked a shadow of themselves and Lionel Messi is hardly even a shadow of his usual self. The Argentine had three shots on the night – not one was on target. Luis Suarez and Neymar looked equally off their game as the former seemed more intent on his physical battle with compatriot Diego Godin while the latter’s growing frustrations saw him receive a yellow card.

Not to take anything away from Los Rojiblancos. They attacked from the off and Barca did not know how to respond, apart from carousel the ball around the back four and slow the game down. Their plan did not work. Atletico’s plan did. And as ever, they fought hard and dug deep to make sure of their progress.

This might be Barca’s worst period since April 2014. Not since have they failed to score in two consecutive games. Messi now has gone five games without scoring, which for most players is like passing six months without a goal to their name. Neymar is without a goal in four.

It was barely a fortnight ago that Barca were on track for an unprecedented back-to-back treble. Now they are out of the Champions League, this dream is over. And in the League, a nine-point and 12-point lead over Atletico and Real Madrid, respectively, has been cut to three and four points. All of a sudden, their title defence is in real danger too. 

If Barca do not lift their game and quickly, maybe soon all they will have left to play for is the Copa del Rey. As for Atletico, they are now eyeing their second Champions League Final and, as ever, they will not lack the belief to go one better than in 2014.