It seems nothing can separate Barça and Atlético Madrid. Four meetings this season and four draws, the latest a high-paced battle in the Champions League quarter-final first leg at Camp Nou tonight that ended 1-1. Diego Ribas surprised José Manuel Pinto from 30 yards to put Cholo Simeone’s team ahead just before the hour but a magnificent Andrés Iniesta set up Neymar Jr to equalize fifteen minutes later. Despite a late push from Barça, Atlético held on, leaving everything to play for in the second game next Wednesday at the Vicente Calderón.
Barça knew Atlético would come out strongly but could find little answer to the visitors’ early high press. Within the first five minutes Villa had twice fired wide, the second time a real chance after Pinto’s poor kick straight to Arda. Barça tried to respond with a run from Messi which ended with a foul on the edge of the area but the Argentinian fired the free-kick straight at the wall. Atlético were frustrating Barça’s rhythm and there was further disruption when Piqué had to go off after 12 minutes after falling awkwardly after a jump with Diego Costa.
It was not a good start for Barça but with Bartra fitting into defence the team set about taking control of the game. As expected Atlético played to the limit to break Barça’s flow and inevitably the fouls started to come. German referee Felix Brych, in typical UEFA style, showed leniency for the first bad foul from Tiago on Iniesta but soon after he pulled out the first yellow when Koke brought down Neymar.
Barça finally began to create danger after the twentieth minute. Neymar flicked a header straight at Courtois after Xavi’s chip then Messi showed brilliant footwork to escape from Miranda before delivering a superb pass for Iniesta whose shot was blocked by Godin. Atlético were now getting pinned back and their cause didn’t seem to be helped when Diego Costa, who had been doubtful before the game, pulled up injured and had to be replaced by Diego Ribas. It seemed very unfortunate at the time for Atlético but the substitute’s goal later on would prove handsome consolation.
Barça kept plugging away but there was always a heavily packed defence. Xavi’s free-kick found Bartra going up for the header but the ball flicked off his back and went just wide. Then from another Xavi free-kick Alba tried an ambitious volley but got it all wrong. Dani Alves was typically energetic up and down the right but his crossing was failing to connect, then twice in a minute he swung in balls from the right, first for Messi’s header to force a diving save to his left from Courtois, then for Iniesta who just failed to get good contact on his header. There are often complaints about Alves’s crossing but it can’t be easy when you only have the likes of Messi and Iniesta to aim at. The cross for Iniesta, for example, would have been perfect for a Drogba or Lewandowski.
The first half ended with Neymar letting fly from out on the right but the ball flew just over. However, Atlético showed they could still cause danger when a quick free-kick gave Villa the chance to take advantage of a bounce off Bartra and force a diving save from Pinto. The first half ended goalless which would have been pleasing for Simeone but the game had been swinging Barça’s way after Atlético’s strong start, and near the end of the half Gabi and Arda had joined Koke in the referee’s book which threatened to put a hold on the visitors’ biting midfield.
Barça continued to look in control at the start of the second half though with little luck against the Atlético defence. Neymar fired another long-shot over then in the 53rd minute Iniesta made a splendid run into the left of the area but after Neymar chested down his cross the defence cut off the pass to Messi. There was little connection in attack with Messi struggling in very little space. Then things got considerably worse in the 55th minute after Iniesta was forced into fouling Diego after Barça had lost three 50/50 challenges catching Mascherano and Busquets out of position. Atlético took a quick free-kick forward to Diego who was 30 yards out on the right, there didn’t appear to be much danger but Diego cracked a tremendous shot that Pinto could only touch as it flew past him at the near post. It is a massive test for the keeper coming in to replace the injured Valdés but that will have to go down as one he might have stopped.
It was an uphill struggle for Barça now and Atlético virtually gave up on attacking. Time and again Barça recovered Atlético’s clearances but the penalty area was looking impenetrable and the only way to test Courtois was with a powerful drive from Busquets that the keeper did brilliantly to turn round the post.
Eventually Martino decided to switch things round bringing on Alexis for Fabregas which meant Neymar moved to his more favoured left side and Iniesta dropped back to his more effective position in midfield. The move paid off within three minutes when Busquets, who had an excellent second half, robbed the ball in Atlético’s half and gave the ball to Iniesta. From his deeper position Iniesta could invent a sublime pass with the outside of his right foot into the space behind Juanfran. Neymar was onto it like a flash and he whipped a right-foot shot past Courtois and inside the far post.
Camp Nou breathed a sigh of relief and with twenty minutes remaining Barça pushed for a winner. Alexis was lively on the right and after one of his crosses was cleared, Iniesta fathomed a beautiful curler only to be thwarted by another outstanding leap from Courtois. Atlético were tiring but they still managed some decisive last-ditch defending and Courtois was only tested once more, from Messi’s free-kick, but again the keeper flew across his goal to tip the ball round the post.
Atlético finished the game on six yellow cards to Barça’s two which shows we pushed them to the limits and in the end they had Courtois to thank for the draw. The result will be seen to give Atlético a slight advantage going into the second leg though as I mentioned in my preview home advantage counts for less against a team from the same league and Barça are perfectly capable of getting a result at the Calderón. Simeone’s tactics also have their risks and with a stricter referee they could easily end the game with ten men.
Barça now have to make do without Piqué for four weeks which after the loss of Valdés is another big blow in an important position. Bartra did a fine job tonight while Mascherano also had a pretty good game but the only cover now for them is Puyol unless Martino decides to use Adriano at centre-back again. Losing our number one keeper and number one centre-back at such a crucial time is not good news but the team must pull together and respond.
Barça: Pinto 5.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 6.5 (Bartra m12, 7), Mascherano 7, Alba 7.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 7.5, Fabregas 5.5 (Alexis m68, 6.5); Neymar 7, Messi 6.5, Iniesta 8.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Koke, Gabi, Tiago, Arda Turan (Cristian Rodriguez m77); Diego Costa (Diego Ribas m30), Villa (Sosa m70).
Goals: m56 Diego Ribas 0-1, m71 Neymar 1-1.
Yellow cards: m19 Koke, m37 Gabi, m44 Arda, m52 Juanfran, m55 Iniesta, m58 Alba, m79 Diego Ribas, m91 Sosa.