Leo Messi celebrated the birth of his second son by coming off the bench to score Barça’s winner in a deserved 1-2 victory over Atlético Madrid. There was a big surprise an hour before kick-off when the teamsheets appeared with Messi only featuring as a substitute. Luis Enrique obviously felt that the experience of becoming a father again, on top of 17,000 kilometres of plane flights during the international break, would have jaded the Argentinian maestro. But with the score at 1-1 after Neymar’s free-kick had cancelled out Fernando Torres’s 51st minute strike, the Barça coach called for Messi who responded by grabbing the winner with 13 minutes to go.
The game began with both defences looking tight and the only early attempt on goal came when Fernando Torres fires well over in the first minute. Barça had more of the ball as usual but the first crack in Atlético’s defence didn’t appear until the 15th minute when Iniesta found Rakitic arriving late on the right but Atlético keeper Oblak made a good save to turn the Croatian’s shot round the post for a corner.
Ter Stegen wasn’t tested at the other end though when Griezmann robbed Mascherano to send Fernando Torres racing away a chance looked on, only for Torres to blaze his shot over. It was highly competitive but Barça seemed to be getting on top. Suárez was unlucky when he could only stab the ball against the crossbar after Rafinha flicked on Rakitic’s corner. Barça’s were then forced into a change when Vermaelen complained of an injury after jumping at the same corner. Jeremy Mathieu came on in the unfortunate Belgian defender’s place. First reports suggest a three to four week recovery period.
There was little more threat on either goal until shortly before half-time when Barça created another chance after Sergi Roberto’s long ball found Suárez who then squared for Neymar who skipped past one challenge but Godin got back to block the Brazilian’s shot.
Atlético began the second half strongly. It was almost as if they knew that Messi would be introduced at some point and they needed to take advantage of their fortune at facing a Messi-less Barça while they could. Oliver Torres ran into the area after robbing Rakitic but then pulled his shot well wide. Atlético then had a shout for a penalty when Fernando Torres fired a cross against Mascherano’s hand, but as with Giminez at the other end in the first half, it was a case of ball onto hand rather than the other way round. A couple of minutes later Tiago volleyed a quick pass between the gap between Alba and Mascherano and Fernando Torres was quickest to react, Ter Stegen hesitated a moment allowing Torres to reach the ball first and fire a low shot just inside the far post.
Barça responded quickly to Atlético’s goal. Just three minutes later Neymar’s skill won him a free-kick just left of centre 25 yards out. With Messi still warmimg up on the sidelines, the Brazilian took the resposibility and curled a beautiful shot over the wall and away from Oblak’s dive into the top corner.
The tension was growing now and Luis Enrique decided it was time to play his ace. Messi replaced Rakitic, which meant Rafinha moved back into midfield, and the Argentinian proceeded to dominate the game for the remaining half an hour. He had been on the pitch just four minutes when he created danger by finding Rafinha who moved the ball on to Suárez who miscued his shot well wide. Then in the 67th minute he sent a perfect pass into the area to Neymar who dinked the ball over Oblak only to be denied a goal by Godin’s arm. The previous two handballs were debatable but I believe referee Mateu Lahoz got them right, this time Godin’s hand stopped a clear goal and a penalty should have been given but the official waved away Barça’s appeals.
Despite Barça’s dominance Atlético still threatened on the break and Sergi Roberto had to be quick to get back with a last ditch tackle to thwart substitute Carrasco. Then in the 77th minute Juanfran and Griezmann made a mix-up of a clearance, sending the ball to Alba who played a direct ball straight into Suárez who laid it off first time to Messi who met the ball in his stride and clipped it past Oblak’s dive.
Now with the lead, Barça gave a pretty good exhibition of keep-ball. However, Atlético never say die and with six minutes remaining Jackson Martinez made a good turn before shooting weakly straight at Ter Stegen. In injury time there was one final dangerous cross from Atlético’s right but Godin failed to make contact at the far post and Barça held on to the three points.
This was by no means a vintage Barça performance, but as against Athletic and Malaga, the team looked as solid and as disciplined as we have come to expect under Luis Enrique. The Barça coach’s decision to leave his star player on the bench was a brave one that played out perfectly in the end. While his confidence in Sergi Roberto and Rafinha is also paying off. I have been critical of Rafinha this season but today he gave a decent performance and played an active role in the victory. Praise should also go to Mathieu who took his opportunity well with a strong performance at the back. Just a shame about poor old Vermaelen who had started the season so promisingly.
Atlético: Oblak; Juanfran, Gimenez, Godín, Filipe; Oliver Torres (Carrasco m60), Tiago, Gabi (Vietto m80); Koke; Griezmann, Fernando Torres (Jackson Martinez m64).
Barça: Ter Stegen 6; Sergi Roberto 6.5, Mascherano 6, Vermaelen 6.5 (Mathieu m56, 7), Alba 6.5; Rakitic 6 (Messi m60, 8.5), Busquets 7, Iniesta 6.5; Rafinha 7, Suárez 7.5, Neymar 7.5.
Goals: m51 Fernando Torres 1-0, m55 Neymar 1-1, m77 Messi 1-2
Yellow cards: m18 Oliver Torres, m43 Filipe Luis, m44 Iniesta, m89 Giminez