Atlético Madrid and Barça fought out an intense goalless draw at the Vicente Calderón tonight which leaves both teams on 50 points at the half-way point of La Liga. As the visiting team the draw will seem more valuable to Barça but with another 19 matches there is still a long way to go in this season’s league. If third-placed Real Madrid win tomorrow at Espanyol they will move up to 47 points, leaving the title-race wide open between these three teams.
Leo Messi’s recent injury and the gastroenteritis suffered by Neymar earlier this week led Tata Martino to take the brave decision of sticking with the in-form trio of Alexis, Fabregas and Pedro up front. Dani Alves returned at right-back while Javier Mascherano was preferred over Marc Bartra to partner Gerard Piqué as Barça started with Valdés, Alves, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Fabregas and Pedro. Diego Simeone went with his expected XI of Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis, Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Arda, Diego Costa and David Villa.
Barça began a bit shakily with Sergio Busquets getting caught in possession after just 30 seconds. Atlético’s high-tempo start put Barça on the back foot and there was early danger in the Barça penalty area when Arda Turan turned away from Fabregas before dashing past Alba to the line, Arda’s cross hit Busquets before looping over Valdés but Piqué was under the bar to head the ball out for a corner. Shortly after, Villa was allowed a chance to shoot from 20 yards but the save for Valdés was easy enough to hold as he dived to the left.
After about ten minutes Barça began to look more comfortable in possession. However, Atlético were very organised and tough to break through, with Villa and Costa often forming the first line of defence just 40 yards from Courtois’ goal. There was a period with very little threat on either goal as Barça couldn’t penetrate the opposition’s area and Atlético found it difficult to get men forward with Piqué particularly impressive in mopping up any incursions into the Barça half. In this period there was just one 20-yard shot from Pedro in the 18th minute which caused no problem for Courtois.
The danger from Atlético was always likely to come from set pieces and just past the twenty-five minute mark the home team won a series of three corners with Miranda dangerously flicking on the third at the near post and Costa just failed to turn the ball in at the far post.
Barça’s best period came in the last 15 minutes of the first half. First, Pedro sent a decent cross to Alexis but the Chilean couldn’t find a shooting chance after chesting the ball down. Then, in the 33rd minute, Iniesta and Xavi took a short corner on the left with Iniesta’s cross finding Pedro’s run, but Pedro’s header went narrowly over. Courtois failed to hold Piqué’s drive from 30 yards but Miranda was quickest to clear, then, in the 40th minute Pedro sent in another cross but Xavi failed to get good contact with his volley. The half ended scrappily with Gabi getting the game’s first yellow card after a foul on Iniesta and then Costa was very fortunate not to follow his team-mate into referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz’s notebook after pulling Alba back.
Iniesta was forced to come off at half-time and Leo Messi was brought on in his place. Messi was soon involved, dribbling past Koke after a short corner on the right, but the Argentinian’s cross was turned out for another corner by Courtois. The two defences continued have have the better of the game and it wasn’t until the 58th minute for the game’s next chance when Arda led a break before slipping the ball left to Costa who fired just wide of the far post. Barça survived again when Villa lost control in the area, then in a brief surge of Atlético pressure Valdés had to come out to save at Costa’s feet.
The game returned to the familiar pattern of Barça possession without penetration until Martino brought on his second substitute, Neymar, in place of Alexis who hadn’t had his best day. Curiously, this was when first substitute Messi started to come more into the game. In the 68th minute he dribbled past one before freeing Alba on the left but when Alba cross came back to him he headed the chance disappointingly wide.
The game remained tense till the end. Both sets of players deserve praise for their work-rate and intensity, and while neither team looked to settle for a draw both preferred not to take risks. Atlético might have sneaked a win but Costa headed over from Filipe’s cross and Arda’s 15-yard volley went too close to Valdés while at the other end there was one more run into the area from Messi but he was falling as he shot and Courtois made the save.
On the balance of play a draw seemed a fair result. Barça may have had more control of the ball but Atlético’s disciplined display meant there were never going to be many chances. Despite the lack of attacking brilliance today the Barça performance was still worthy of credit with first-class commitment throughout. Given the position in the table, Martino’s somewhat conservative tactics made sense as it really was Atlético who needed the win more. Barça’s defence never got caught too far forward with Mascherano looking more like his old self and Piqué putting in a man-of-the-match performance to keep Villa and Costa quiet.
That’s three draws in three games this season between Barça and Atlético. The teams meet again at Camp Nou on the final day of the league season on May 18 and the way things are going that could very well prove to be the title-decider.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Koke, Gabi, Tiago (Cristian Rodriguez m83), Arda; Diego Costa, David Villa (Raul Garcia m77).
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 6.5, Piqué 8.5, Mascherano 7.5, Alba 7; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 7, Iniesta 7 (Messi h/t 6.5); Alexis 6 (Neymar m67, 6), Fabregas 6, Pedro 7 (Sergi Roberto m82, –).
Yellow cards: m44Gabi, m46 Godin, m57 Alba, m72 Mascherano, m83 Alves.