Barça responded to a turbulent week with a splendid 3-1 win over Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou tonight. Neymar Jr opened the scoring after just 12 minutes to give Barça the perfect start and Luis Suarez added another to make it 2-0 at half-time. Mario Mandzukic pulled a goal back from the penalty spot to set up a nervous last half hour but Leo Messi completed a sensational performance with a goal near the end to seal the three points.
Luis Enrique stuck to his guns by asking Messi to play on the right and the Argentinian reacted with discipline, team work and some wonderful build-up play. The only thing missing was his finishing which saved Simeone’s team from a bigger defeat. Barça took immediate control, pinning Atlético back, in the ninth minute Neymar made a fine run infield before finding Messi who skipped past Gamez but the sliced his right-foot finish wide. Three minutes later Rakitic and Messi combined to keep possession on the right, the ball came back to Alves who sent a pass into the area for Messi who beat Godin by knocking the ball one side of the defender and going past him on the other before crossing to Suarez who kneed the ball on, Juanfran made a hash of trying to clear and Neymar pounced at the far post to stab the ball home.
Barça might have had a second a minute later. Alba drove a low shot from the left that Moya failed to hold but the keeper managed to propel himself forward to block Suarez’s attempt with the rebound. Atlético were rattled and the 19-year-old Giménez was fortunate not to be punished for a studs-up challenge which left Neymar with a gash on the ankle that needed treatment.
Neymar recovered and he should have scored soon after. Messi worked hard to keep the ball in and send a pass up the right for Suarez who went past Giménez before chipping over a sublime cross to the perfectly-positioned Neymar at the far post but the Brazilian sent his header an inch wide of the post.
Barça didn’t let up. Neymar set off on another skillful run infield before again finding Messi on the edge of the box, Messi beat Gamez again but made the angle narrow for the shot and Moya saved with his right hand at the near post. Atlético could only respond with fouls and Mandzukic’s frustration was demonstrated with an elbow on Sergio Busquets.
Then in the 35th minute Busquets sent a pass to Messi who used his arm to control the ball and go past Gamez but then the Argentinian set off at explosive speed and when he reached the edge of the area he had the awareness to slip the ball left to Suarez who swept the ball home.
Messi continued to impress with his all-round work, clearing the ball from the edge of Barça’s area, battling with Gamez or sending an inch perfect 40-yard pass to Jordi Alba. However, he couldn’t find the net, heading Alves’s excellent pass narrowly wide. Barça had to settle for 2-0 at half-time but the 81,658 spectators had been treated to the best first half of the season.
Barça looked for more control in the second half but Atlético showed more ambition and pushed further forward. However, with Piqué dominating at the back the supposed aerial threat at set-pieces from the visitors was only seen with a looped header over from Godin. Barça looked solid at the back but Atlético were offered a way back when Messi clipped Gamez’s shin just inside the left side of Barça’s penalty area and referee Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot. Mandzukic fired the penalty high past Bravo to make it 2-1.
Suarez was booked soon after for protesting when Undiano failed to see Giménez’s illegal-looking jump over Rakitic in the other area, but there were some nervous minutes for Camp Nou especially when Torres was brought on in place of Gabi. However, Barça continued working hard to keep the situation under control and only one slip from Mascherano allowed Atlético one dangerous counter-attack but Bravo came out well to intercept the cross towards Torres. Then when Bravo could only get a hand to Torres’s low cross Alba was on hand to clear and Arda Turan then sent a weak shot straight at Bravo.
Barça had failed to create chances like in the first half but there was always the danger that Messi, Neymar or Suarez might score another. Messi fired one shot too close to Moya, then in the 87th minute Suarez played a fine cross-field pass to Messi who played Rakitic into the area on right, the Croat’s return pass was slightly behind Messi but the ball hit Tiago who failed to react and Messi was lightning quick to steer the ball past Moya and finally claim his goal.
This was an excellent response from the team to a week of press speculation. Messi spoke after tonight’s game to deny any problems, saying he is “just one more in the changing room”, while Mascherano claimed that 75% of the press stories are not true. We know something happened last week as even Bartomeu admitted he had spoken to Messi and to Luis Enrique after the defeat at Real Sociedad, but the club is now showing a united front which we must hope now leads to a positive second half of the season.
Barça: Bravo 6.5; Alves 7.5, Pique 7.5, Mascherano 7, Alba 8; Rakitic 7 (Rafinha m89, –), Busquets 7.5, Iniesta 7; Messi 9, Suarez 8 (Pedro m91, –), Neymar 8.5.
Atlético: Moya; Juanfran, Giménez, Godin, Gamez (Siqueira m83); Arda, Tiago, Gabi (Torres m68), Koke; Griezmann (Raul Garcia m74), Mandzukic.
Goals: m12 Neymar 1-0, m35 Suarez 2-0, m57 Mandzukic (pen) 2-1, m87 Messi 3-1.
Yellow cards: m21 Gamez, m34 Mandzukic, m49 Juanfran, m58 Suarez, m65 Tiago, m69 Griezmann, m74 Mascherano, m80 Messi, m83 Godin.