The fate of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona seems to be completely entwined with each other this season. The more entwined they get, less and less separates them. They have met thrice this season before this Champions League quarterfinals fixture and all of the matches have ended in draws. So far, except for an away goal won by Barcelona, they both remain inseparable.
The Champions League Quarter Finals between Atletico and Barcelona was an unwanted tie for both the teams at this stage. They know each other so well and are both fierce competitors. Any game between these two teams is going to sap every ounce of energy from all the players. With just a single point separating the same two teams in La Liga, this match had more at stake. If there were any tactical vulnerabilities or uncertainties they do not want the other team to know at this stage, since the last match in La Liga will almost certainly be a title decider between these same two teams! You couldn’t write a more thrilling or potentially heartbreaking script than this.
This game lived up to every cent of its billing and ended in a well deserved 1-1 draw with Atletico having a slight advantage on away goals. The game demonstrated the well-established contrasts in style with Barcelona attacking with all-round possession and Atletico parrying every advance with inch-perfect defense. The fact that Atletico didn’t blow it in their own third by getting a red card or penalty with many close encounters is proof that Atleti have the meanest defense in football right now. The organization and confidence displayed by Atletico in defense is probably the best in world football today. I do not expect to see any team able to break down this team this season. The suffering in the hands of Real Madrid, after an early goal shellshocked them in the Copa Del Rey semifinal first leg, is now history. Atletico proved their improved resilience against the same Real Madrid side when they met in the league and drew, a match arguably Atletico should have won. Atletico are no more dark horses. Only injuries can stop this Atletico team.
Many expected Atletico to just wither away as the season comes to the tail end of business and the usual suspects, Barcelona and Real Madrid, to share the spoils. Diego Simeone, the Atletico coach, seems to have completely missed the draft. Except for visible tiring at the end of the second half, his squad seems to be capable of pulling it off against any team in the world.
Iniesta and Messi seemed to have exchanged T-shirts before the game! That should have been the cunning plan of Tata Martino. Iniesta connected well with everyone and was supremely mobile and able to find space easily. He was far more dangerous than the Argentine genius throughout the game. He was trying to cut in with every possible opportunity and was clearly not holding back his position in the midfield as he usually does. Messi played a more allround game creating chances and sometimes defending deep. And of course, he did have his shot at goal as well.
Iniesta was out and out the best player on the pitch, matched only by Thibaut Courtois, the brilliant Atletico goalkeeper. If Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, leaves Atletico at the end of the season, it will be a greater loss than the rumored departure of Diego Costa, their talismanic striker. Iniesta identified and created the pinpoint pass to Neymar and the Brazilian forward had no difficulty in finding the back of the net. There only existed a nanosecond of a gap before the onrushing Godin (or was it Juanfran?) would have closed the door. And there was just a single degree of angle within which Courtois would have palmed the ball away. For all the complaints about Tata Martino picking Neymar when his form has been questionable, this one moment of brilliance redeemed it. Neymar can be utterly tongue-tied in front of the goal as demonstrated so many times this season.
The Atleti defense, as usual, got the job done with little drama. There was no panicking. In fact, for the last 15 minutes of the game, Atletico were just throwing the ball back into Barcelona’s hands, more than willing to defend. The Diego goal from 30 feet was a moment of brilliance that he himself will be unable to repeat. No goalkeeper could have anticipated and stopped that screamer of a goal. If Atletico have one blemish in their armour, it would be their increasing reliance on long-range efforts against quality opposition. No matter how good their defense, a single goal in 90 minutes should be a distinct possibility for any world class team! That is what Barcelona will be hoping for in 8 days’ time. Atleti have to find the back of the net with minimal involvement of the midfield to keep their game flowing and intact. The injury of Diego Costa, who has been performing this near impossible task with aplomb, could be the single deciding factor if Atletico lose it from here.
Despite all the pressing and running, the Barcelona squad looked more spirited at the end of the match and was creating chances by the minute. This was not helped in any way by Arda Turan, the Atletico midfielder who played one of his best games the last time these two teams met, having an indifferent day. Barcelona supporters too clearly played their role in the match getting behind their team for the whole 90 minutes.
There is now a clear respect for Atletico, which shows that the team has been accepted as belonging to the top echelon of Spanish football. Not that Diego Simeone needs acceptance! He is a man who commands respect by letting his team talk on the pitch. But even Simeone seems to have gathered a newfound swagger and a smile. His mission to take Atleti to the top, in a season when they lost one of their eternal mentor in Louis Aragones, is at last within touching distance. This could be the greatest footballing story of our life, signified by the presence of Messi and Cristiano who gave their all to stop this juggernaut called Atletico.