Fútbol Club Barcelona moved nine points clear at the top of La Liga after beating second-placed Atlético Madrid 4-1 at Camp Nou tonight. It might have been a very different story after Diego Simeone’s side clearly had the better of the first half an hour with the always dangerous Radamel Falcao putting the visitors in front. However, a splendid strike from Adriano Correira brought Barça level before Sergio Busquets put Barça ahead on the stroke of half time. Leo Messi had had a quiet first half but he struck twice in the second half to secure the points for Barça and take his goal tally for 2012 to the ridiculous figure of 90. With third-placed Real Madrid now thirteen points adrift after drawing 2-2 with Espanyol there are many who will say the Liga is already in the bag though with 22 games still to play there is still a long way to the finish line.
There were few surprises in the starting lineups. Atlético coach Diego Simeone started with his expected XI whereas Tito Vilanova made the important decision to continue with Adriano at right back, while with Cesc Fabregas out injured he returned to the classic midfield of Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta while bringing in Alexis Sanchez to play on the left wing, meaning David Villa again started on the bench along with Mascherano, Alves, Song, Thiago and Tello.
Barça had scored nineteen goals in Atlético’s last four league visits to Camp Nou but there was little sign early on that Atlético’s keeper Thibaut Courtois would have much work to do. Simeone set his team in a defensive 4-4-1-1 which played deep and narrow, leaving very few spaces for Barça to go through the middle and with Alexis and Pedro drifting inside it seemed that the only way we might surprise Atlético’s defence was with Adriano and Alba getting forward on the wings.
Atlético were happy to leave us possession but they looked to break quickly and as early as the fourth minute Piqué had to make a good tackle on Arda Turan as he advanced into the left of Barça’s penalty area. The game had been billed as a battle between Messi and Falcao and it was the Colombian striker who looked most dangerous early on. With his first chance in the ninth minute he flicked a header from Koke’s cross that came out off the inside of the far post with Valdés beaten.
Barça continued to be frustrated by Atlético’s tight defence. Adriano and Alba began to get forward but with no luck with their crossing and with the first free kick within shooting distance Messi sent a disappointing shot against the wall. Despite a 75%-25% possession rate it was Atlético who continued to create more danger. In the 24th minute a quickly taken Atlético free kick from just inside their half caught Puyol and Piqué off guard and Falcao was racing towards goal, Puyol, chasing back, managed to put the forward under enough pressure that he pulled his shot wide of the far post though Valdés deserves credit for closing the angle well.
The warning signs were there but Barça had few ideas to change things around and the switching of positions of Barça’s forwards had little effect on things. Messi was moving deeper to try to get more involved but in the 31st minute this led to Atlético taking the lead. Xavi’s pass for the Argentinian fell a bit short and Diego Costa robbed the ball and sent the ball left for Falcao who showed speed to break away from Busquets and then a classy finish, forcing Valdés to dive and chipping the ball in.
Nobody in the 86,637 crowd could deny that Atlético deserved their lead. However, it took Barça just five minutes to draw level and as so often this season it was the attacking full back that again made the difference. Iniesta sent a 40-yard crossfield pass to Adriano on the right wing, faced with Filipe Luis and Arda, Adriano cut back and moved inside before letting fly from 25 yards with power and precision, leaving Courtois no chance as the ball dipped into the far top corner, clipping the underside of the bar on the way in.
Barça became noticeably more lively after Adriano’s goal and Atlético’s defence were put under more pressure as they were forced to defend even deeper. As the first half drew to a close Barça won a series of corners with Piqué and Iniesta forcing Courtois’ first saves and then from a corner from the left Piqué, Alexis and Puyol all battled for the divided ball before it broke to Busquets who showed great coolness to pause before shooting through the gap from eight yards. Atletico must have wondered how they could possible be behind at half time but the key was in Barça’s finishing whereas Falcao must have been ruing the two chances that got away.
The second half was quite a different story and demonstrated very clearly how much more comfortably we play with the score in our favour. The possession game can be very frustrating when Barça are chasing a game and our opponents can be happy with just closing spaces and keeping things tight. With the lead, however, it is the opponent who is frustrated as they are forced into trying to win the ball back and the need to attack leaves more spaces for Barça to exploit. The deadly Messi only needs half a yard and in the 57th minute despite an overhit pass from Alexis, Messi made a good first control before surging forward five yards and shooting low past Courtois from just outside the area.
Falcao almost had a chance to pull one straight back when Puyol misjudged a header from an Atlético free kick but fortunately the ball struck the striker on the arm and the referee Perez Lasa blew for the handball. It was the last danger for Valdés’s goal as Barça completely dominated the final half hour. Thiago and Villa came on for Alexis and Pedro for the last 15 minutes with little time to prove much, though Thiago made one ridiculously brilliant control from a Valdés long kick while Villa received supportive chants from the fans. The final substitute was Alves for man-of-the-match Adriano who seemed to suffer another muscular problem five minutes from the end but the final word went to Messi who took advantage of a woeful mistake from Godin who tried to backheel the ball on the edge of his area, and Messi darted in to clip the ball over the advancing Courtois.
One of the most positive thing about this season’s Barça compared to last season is that the spirit to fight back is very strong. It’s not the first time we have recovered after going behind and our capacity to react to unfavourable situations is noteworthy. However, the first 35 minutes were very worrying as we showed very little creativity against a packed defence. If it hadn’t been for the tremendous shot from Adriano to equalize then Atlético might have offered more resistance later. The decision of Vilanova to leave Villa as a sub again would no doubt have been even more controversial if we hadn’t won tonight but whatever you think about the decision to play Alexis at least it demonstrates quite clearly that Vilanova is his own man and he takes decisions because he believes they are the best decision whatever the press and the fans may be calling for. The decision to play Adriano instead of Alves is also a brave one but given the form shown by the two Brazilians it would seem that Tito has made the right choice for now. The reaction of Alves and Villa to their situation will be very interesting, especially given the rumours appearing in the Madrid press saying they could look to move on. Both players have enough talent to be Barça regulars but they will have to show the right attitude and fight for their places. competition for places is always a positive thing but maintaining a happy dressing room is going to be a complicated job.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Adriano 8 (Alves m85, –), Piqué 7, Puyol 6.5, Alba 6.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 7.5, Iniesta 7; Pedro 6.5 (Villa m78, 6), Messi 7.5, Alexis 7 (Thiago m75, 6.5).
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis (Cata Diaz m45); Koke, Mario Suarez (Adrian m56), Gabi, Arda Turan; Diego Costa (Tiago m60); Falcao.
Goals: m31 Falcao 0-1, m36 Adriano 1-1, m45 Busquets 2-1, m57 Messi 3-1, m88 Messi 4-1.
Yellow cards: m47 Gabi, m85 Thiago.