It wasn’t to be. After reaching the Champions League for six successive seasons Barça crashed out at the quarter-final stage tonight to Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. Following last week’s 1-1 draw in the first leg at Camp Nou Barça needed to score at least once on the night but there was no coming back after Koke had fired Atlético into an early lead. The home team might have finished off the tie in the first twenty minutes tonight but three times the woodwork saved Barça. The 1-0 scoreline offered Barça the chance to recover but Atlético defended in numbers to hold on for a deserved victory.
Both teams lined up as expected with Tata Martino placing Leo Messi on the right of attack and Neymar on the left with Cesc Fabregas given the false nine role, while Simeone brought in Raul Garcia and Adrian Lopez for the injured Arda Turan and Diego Costa. Martino’s tactical changes proved to be largely ineffective with only Neymar benefiting from moving back to the left. Messi drifted inside but was rarely seen and only once, in the third minute, did he cut in from the right past Filipe but his shot went well over.
Meanwhile, Atlético’s direct style put Barça defence under immediate pressure. Raul Garcia didn’t think twice when receiving Juanfran’s throw-in, hitting a 30-yard shot narrowly over. Then in the fifth minute Adrian broke into the area and cracked a shot against the post, Barça failed to clear the ball, Koke gave it to Villa who got the better of Bartra to send in a cross from the left, Adrian rose above Alba at the far post to head the ball back across goal and Koke arrived to stab the ball home.
Barça were shocked and Atlético went for the kill. Whether it was Busquets getting caught in possession, Alves failing to clear or Pinto nearly getting robbed by Adrian, Barça were looking a mess. Atlético came close to a second in the 11th minute when Koke robbed Busquets and Villa took advantage of the space between Alves and Bartra but he fired his shot against the post. Eight minutes later, Raul Garcia headed a pass into the area and this time Villa was again denied a goal against his ex-team-mates by the crossbar.
There were some glimmers of hope for Barça. Neymar was looking up to the challenge and he caused Juanfran a few problems on the left. On the other flank Alves was tireless but he generally had a poor game, losing out to the magnificent Koke every time. The Brazilian full-back managed one decent cross early on but Messi headed wide. Then after a sublime nutmeg from Neymar on Tiago in the 24nd minute, Messi hit another chance off target.
Despite the very strong start from Atlético there was the feeling that Barça had survived intact. There was still a long time to go and Atlético began to sit deeper and defend in numbers. Barça began to play more in the Atlético half but there was little seen from Xavi and Messi. Iniesta was more active, darting inside and out, but even he was guilty of allowing the ball to roll under his foot for a throw.
There was some hope before the game that Atlético’s style of playing to the limit might lead to their players getting booked and perhaps they might end up with a player sent off. However, English referee Howard Webb, after booking Busquets in the 18th minute, decided to keep his cards in his pocket until the dying minutes of the game, showing a particularly lenient reaction after a hack by Raul Garcia on Neymar. With Atlético often pulling all ten outfield players back there was little penetration now from the visitors. The first half ended with more refereeing controversy as first Atlético appealed for a penalty after Mascherano made minor contact before Adrian’s exaggerated fall, then twice in a minute at the other end Fabregas went down, first there seemed to be contact from Godin, and then as the Barça man went for a cross Raul Garcia appeared briefly to hold his shirt.
With 45 minutes remaining the tie was still there for the taking and Barça began the second half looking better. In the 48th minute Xavi and Messi came to life to combine through the middle, Xavi slipped the pass in for Neymar but Courtois came out brilliantly to dive at the Brazilian’s feet and knock the ball away, Messi, following up, received the ball on his right-foot and couldn’t find a shot, the ball came to Alves who crossed from the right, but despite Courtois falling backwards the keeper still managed to prevent Xavi from finishing from close range.
Atlético were getting pinned back and despite the packed defence it seemed improbable that they could hold out like this for the rest of the half. Barça played it patiently, trying to work the ball from side to side but with little penetration. The next chance came from another Alves cross in the 59th minute but Xavi could only get a slight contact on his header and the ball went wide.
Martino called for Alexis to replace Fabregas which allowed Messi to move to the middle but Simeone reacted by taking off the tiring Adrian and bringing on the midfielder Diego Ribas. The changes helped Atlético to break out more and just three minutes after coming on Diego had got the better of Busquets and cracked a shot that Pinto pushed round the post.
The Calderón raised the volume and Atlético began looking for a second that would surely finish the game. Gabi broke into space left by Alves and quite frankly should have scored but shot weakly allowing Pinto to save. Then in the 72nd minute Atlético had another shout for a penalty after Mascherano appeared to barge Villa, the play continued with a tremendous scramble with Busquets finally clearing to thwart Raul Garcia.
The game was now slipping away from Barça and Martino needed to do something. His response to throw on Pedro made sense, his decision to take off Iniesta did not (at the time I wrote one word in my notebook: ‘madness’). Barça’s first twenty minutes had been undoubtedly poor, but it had at least been predictable that Atlético would start very strongly. The flipside of Atlético’s heavy early press is that they eventually tire, the last 20 minutes should have been the time to turn the screw and punish them.
Instead it was Barça that faded. Besides one cross from Alexis that Neymar headed wide there was nothing of danger to worry Courtois. Simeone predictably animated the crowd in the final minutes as his team played out time by the corner flag. The Calderón celebrated a famous victory and Atlético can now look forward to their first semi-final in Europe’s top competition since 1974.
For Barça there are now many questions and the feeling that we are paying the price for ignoring the lessons of last season’s elimination to Bayern Munich. Martino is likely to face most criticism today for his decisions. It’s difficult to understand playing Messi on the right and Fabregas in the middle when he could have played Messi in his normal position and Alexis (or Pedro) on the right, but the idea that we would improve by taking off Iniesta was extremely questionable. Besides these decisions it was also very worrying to see such an uninspired performance. Were the players not fired up for this? Besides a creditable performance from Alba, an improvement from Bartra and Xavi in the second half, and some moments from Neymar and Iniesta, there was little to make you feel proud. Atlético are an extremely effective team that deserve every credit for their achievements under Simeone. However, in our previous four games this season we gave them a decent match and if we could have given a similar performance tonight, given the luck we had, it might have been enough.
Now, we can only lick our wounds and try and get our act together for the other two trophies we can still win this season. On Saturday we travel to Granada for a league game which, after tonight’s result, could prove to be tricky. Then next Wednesday we’ll have to find a much improved performance when we face Real Madrid in Valencia in the Copa del Rey Final.
Atlético: Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Raul Garcia, Gabi, Tiago, Koke; Adrian (Diego Ribas m62), Villa (Cristian Rodriguez m78).
Barça: Pinto 6; Alves 4.5, Bartra 6, Mascherano 5.5, Alba 7.5; Xavi 6, Busquets 5, Iniesta 6 (Pedro m72, 5.5); Messi 4.5, Fabregas 5 (Alexis m61, 6), Neymar 6.5.
Goal: m5 Koke 1-0
Yellow cards: m18 Busquets, m91 Koke, m92 Mascherano, m93 Alves.