Camp Nou, Barcelona – ‘El Atleti decide si aun hay liga,’ was AS’s headline on Sunday morning – it was down to Atletico Madrid to decide whether there was still a league in Spain this season. There were 90-odd thousand in the Camp Nou to also see if, with 11 matches left to play, there was a league to be had. But by the end of the afternoon, the situation was clear. The match had signalled the end of this season’s La Liga title race – if you could call it that in the first place.
Barcelona have been far supreme for the entire season, Valencia pushed at first put since the winter break they have plateaued. Real Madrid’s chances were over after the Christmas Clasico whilst Atletico have quietly but efficiently rose to be Barca’s sole challengers. And so as Atletico travelled to Barcelona, with the visitors in good form having scored nine goals in their past two matches and the hosts looking as vulnerable as they have been all season, it was set to be a definitive afternoon in La Liga.
Perhaps by now though we should know who would step up in a decisive match such as this one. Leo Messi’s 600th goal was the difference. It carried Barcelona closer to the La Liga title, his eighth at the club. As the ball hit the net, the Camp Nou cheered and chanted his name. Decked in their raincoats the crowd celebrated an important goal but it was still early. There was still time for it all to change. Atletico Madrid refused to relinquish their challenge without a fight, but he had done it again.
The stadium clock showed 26 minutes and the ball was about 25 yards away from goal, just to the left of centre, as Jan Oblak – the Atletico goalkeeper – looked at it. There was an abundance of players between the goalkeeper and the ball, but it was still visible. Moments later, it was not. Mainly because the magician standing over the free-kick had managed to curl a sublime strike. He bent it in a long, sharp arc towards the top corner. It spun, almost becoming invisible and then reappeared in the back of the net. Oblak dived with his arm outstretched but it was no good. At the most crucial of times, Messi had once again had his say.
Five games ago, the picture looked much rosier – 11 points was the gap between Barcelona and second-placed Atletico. But three draws – against Espanyol, Getafe, and Las Palmas – had cut the gap to five. A challenging run to the Copa del Rey final and a tie in the Champions League against Chelsea that still involves some work have pushed la Blaugrana in recent weeks. Atletico, in the meantime, have been flying. Since Diego Costa’s return, they have been relentless, winning eight and drawing one of nine matches, and quite rightly considered as contenders once again. They were not, though, able to win here. When the moment came – declared a decider with just over a quarter of the season to play – Barcelona beat them. The five-point gap became eight. When Diego Simeone was asked after the match as to why this was, the answer was simple: “The best player is with them.”
The first-half goal was not against the run of play. It had been coming. Barcelona – as usual – had dominated the ball, the game had been played almost entirely in Atletico’s half. By half-time the visitors had taken a solitary shot – a long, harmless effort from Thomas Partey – whilst Barca had created nine albeit most were far from being clear chances. Andres Iniesta had a shot deflected wide just before Oblak saved at the near post when Sergio Busquets diverted Philippe Coutinho’s effort, and Luis Suarez had two efforts blocked. Messi hit a free-kick against the wall, Coutinho bent a shot into Oblak’s arms, and Andre Gomes – who came on for the injured Iniesta – fluffed his lines a matter of yards from the goalline. Gerard Pique headed over from a corner, and then the referee blew for half-time. One-sided it was but over, it certainly was not.
After the break, Atletico took a step forward and pressed higher. They were that bit more aggressive. That bit more forceful. That bit more Atletico-like. The visitors capitalised on a slight drop in Barcelona assurance. Since Iniesta had gone off, their play hadn’t been as smooth. It was now or never for Atletico. Their chance to reduce Barcelona’s once unassailable lead down to two points was here. There were 45 minutes to show that there still was league. They knew they had to go for it now.
Simeone made substitutions so that his side played with Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa, Saul Niguez, Thomas Partey, Angel Correa, and Kevin Gameiro for the final 25-minutes or so, and led Terry Gibson on Sky Sports commentary to question whether it was, in fact, Simeone on the touchline or rather an imposter organising the changes. Barcelona were uncomfortable, Gomes in particular. The Camp Nou sensed vulnerability and so did Atletico. Costa, chasing alongside Samuel Umtiti, had his first shot and Griezmann sliced over. The sense of danger was apparent.
The match became open. Tiredness started to spread. There was space available for Barcelona but they lacked the energy to exploit it. Just as it looked like the game had reached its conclusion, Gameiro got the goal that would have left the league wide open, but the flag was up for offside against Costa. He protested, but he was the only one. Suarez also had a late goal denied but it made no difference to the outcome. Messi hadn’t been denied – yet again – and it was his moment that had decided the match and perhaps the title.
Los Otros Puntos
- A good week for Espanyol continued in the 91st minute of their match against strugglers Levante – following on from their victory at home against Real Madrid in midweek, Leo Baptistao salvaged a point for los periquitos in stoppage time. Levante went ahead when Morales converted a penalty before Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez was stretched straight off the pitch and into an ambulance following a nasty collision from which he lost consciousness. Levante still top the mini-league of four teams fighting against relegation but they are still yet to win in the league since mid-November, hence why Juan Muniz was sacked on Sunday morning.
- A Cristiano Ronaldo double – which took him to 200 Madrid goals – and a Gareth Bale goal gave Real Madrid a relatively easy victory over Getafe. Despite there only being about 50,000 at the Bernabeu – albeit Getafe sold out their allocation of about 10 – it was a much-needed win following their midweek defeat to Espanyol and a trip to Paris to come on Tuesday. It was the first time that Getafe have conceded three goals in the league this season but Loic Remy’s red card for an arm in the face of Nacho didn’t aid their cause. Francisco Portillo did convert a penalty for the visitors after Jorge Molina was brought down but it was little more than a consolation.
- Deportivo La Coruna scored their first goal under Clarence Seedorf – and their first in six league matches – to gain a crucial point against Eibar. Florin Andone rescued the point for the hosts after Takashi Inui scored the opener for Eibar. However, it was a debut to forget for Maksym Koval in the Depor goal as he was sent off before half-time.
- Valencia – Real Betis finished 3-6 earlier in the season, however, it was a much more sedate affair as they met again on Sunday evening at Mestalla. Rodrigo and Simone Zaza got the goals for Los Che but the victory was tainted by Santi Mina leaving the game early through injury.
- Malaga move ever closer to Segunda as each week passes. It now looks more than likely that they will be the fourth Andalucian side to be relegated in four seasons.
- Girona and Cristhian Stuani continue to impress.
Matchday 26 (midweek):
Espanyol 1–0 Real Madrid
Girona 1–0 Celta Vigo
Athletic Bilbao 1–1 Valencia
Getafe 3–0 Deportivo
Malaga 0–1 Sevilla
Atletico Madrid 4–0 Leganes
Eibar 1–0 Villarreal
Real Betis 0–0 Real Sociedad
Las Palmas 1–1 Barcelona
Alaves 1–0 Levante
Villarreal 0–2 Girona
Sevilla 2–0 Athletic Bilbao
Deportivo 1–1 Eibar
Leganes 2–0 Malaga
Real Madrid 3–1 Getafe
Levante 1–1 Espanyol
Barcelona 1–0 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2–1 Alaves
Valencia 2–0 Real Betis
Celta Vigo – Las Palmas to be played on Monday
El Jugador de la Semana: Leo Messi (Barcelona)
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