A spectacular free kick from Leo Messi ten minutes from the end earned Barça a 1-2 win at Atlético Madrid to keep our slim title hopes alive. Dani Alves had given Barça the lead near the end of the first half but Atlético equalized early in the second half through Falcao. Barça were running out of ideas until Messi’s moment of magic and then Victor Valdés secured the points with a couple of fine saves near the end.
After the game Pep Guardiola declared that Barça will not win this Liga. On face value some might think he was just showing fatalism due to the ten-point gap with rivals Real Madrid. However, from the tone of his statement many will judge that he was referring to the increasing concern over some refereeing decisions as Madrid were again favoured today in their victory at Rayo.
Before the game Guardiola had talked about how new Atlético coach Diego Simeone has already left his mark on his team and the aggression shown by Atlético was reminiscent of Simeone in his playing days. However, the defensive formation was disappointing as Atlético sat back and waited for a chance to hit us on the break. It’s true that we suffered a couple of attacks in the first five minutes and Valdés dropped a corner that had to be cleared by Abidal but we soon settled into the pattern of Barça with the ball and Atletico all back to close spaces.
Early on it looked as though we would find our way through quite easily, Messi had a goal ruled out for a handball that was so slight it seemed harsh to call it at all although the ref wrongly decided it was worthy of a yellow card, but as the game went on the aggressive play of Atlético made it more difficult to create chances. Xavi brought a fine save from Courtois with a curling free kick but the most noteworthy actions were the continuous fouls from Atletico as Godin, Juanfran and Turan all got yellow cards in the first 30 minutes.
It was one of those games that needs a special player like Messi or Dani Alves to make the difference. In the 36th minute Alves pushed forward and found Messi who turned and set off on a run that drew the defence towards him leaving Fabregas free on the left to receive his pass, Cesc delivered a first time ball across the face of the goal to Alves who had continued his run to meet the cross with an outstretched leg to put us in front.
We had one dodgy moment at the back when Alexis and Xavi lost the ball in a dangerous position but Valdés managed to gather after going for the same ball with Mascherano and Falcao. A disappointing first half ended with Fabregas finally taking justice into his own hands and scything down Juanfran. After what had gone before I suppose Cesc thought he could not possibly be sent off but I think he was pushing his luck a bit.
The second half was a much better spectacle though I doubt Guardiola will be happy with the performance. Atlético came out with a more attacking attitude and they equalized almost immediately when Busquets erroneously headed on a corner and Falcao volleyed home at the far post. Having come out to attack Atletico now didn’t seem sure whether to carry on attacking or go back to full defence and we saw a more open and confused game as a result.
Falcao was wrongly called offside when he was going through one-on-one with Valdés, while Alves put in a dangerous cross that eluded Messi, and Alexis headed over at the far post after an awkward bounce before him. In the 68th minute we had another scare when Mascherano and Abidal failed to deal with a long goalkeeper’s kick, Valdés had to come out to save from Falcao and then Gabi’s attempt to catch Valdés off his line was foiled by Puyol getting back to clear.
Barça brought on Cuenca and Pedro but we were failing to make any danger apart from a disallowed goal from Alexis for another unlucky handball. Then in the 80th minute Pedro was fouled on the left just outside the area. Xavi and Messi stood over the ball and as Courtois moved to his near post to line up the wall Messi took the opportunity to hit a beautiful left footer that swerved away from Courtois and into the far corner.
It was a goal out of the blue and Messi might have scored another after a couple of individual runs. However, we ended the game on the back foot with some heroics from Victor Valdés which will do no harm to those who claim Valdés is the best keeper in the world. In the 89th minute we failed to clear a free kick (with a handball from Busquets to the bargain) and Valdés had to make an excellent point blank save from Juanfran. Valdés ended the game with one splendid 40-yard punch clear, a catch under pressure from Atletico’s keeper Courtois up for a corner, and then a stop from a wicked 30-yard volley from Gabi.
It was epic stuff at the end and not the sort of clinging-on finish we see very often. The game will be remembered for the poor refereeing, for the Valdés saves and for Messi’s classy goal. Unfortunately we will be denied Messi’s genius for next week’s game with Sporting Gijon, as, like Busquets, he received a fifth yellow card today. A lot could be made of the fact that Messi, who very rarely kicks anybody, will be serving a one-match suspension in the same week as Real Madrid’s Pepe who does little else. Something is not right.
Atlético: Courtois, Juanfran, Miranda, Godín, Filipe Luis; Tiago, Gabi, Koke (Salvio m77) , Arda Turan (Silvio m86), Adrián, Falcao
Barça: Valdés 8; Alves 8 (Cuenca m72, 6), Puyol 7, Mascherano 6, Abidal 6; Xavi 7, Busquets 5.5, Fabregas 6 (Pedro m77, 6); Alexis 6.5 (Piqué m85 –) Messi 8, Iniesta 6,.
Goals: m36 Alves 0-1, m48 Falcao 1-1, m81 Messi 1-2
Yellow cards: m8 Messi, m23 Godin, m25 Juanfran, m30 Turan, m45 Fabregas m60 Tiago Mendes, m70 Alves, m74 Koke, m76 Alexis, m85 Falcao, m90 Busquets.