FC Barcelona escaped from the Vicente Calderon with all three points and a 2-1 victory courtesy of Lionel Messi’s wondergoal, but that victory did come at a price as both Sergio Busquets and Leo Messi picked up their fifth yellow cards, ruling them out of next week’s match with Sporting Gijon. The match itself was a scrappy, hard-fought affair rather than the end-to-end excitement we have grown accustomed to from Atletico-Barca encounters, but it was intriguing nonetheless. Dani Alves scored the opener not long after the half-hour mark to give Barcelona the lead heading into half-time, although Falcao equalised mere minutes into the second half. The game looked destined to end a draw until Lionel Messi caught everyone off guard with a spectacular free-kick with 10 minutes left to play to keep the Blaugrana in the title race.
Pep Guardiola surprised a few people with his team selection as Xavi was restored to the starting lineup while Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas interchanged positions between the left-wing and midfield. Promising winger Cristian Tello was left out of the squad to the dismay of some, although there was a spot on the bench for the returning Seydou Keita.
The game started brightly enough with all the big guns linking up to set up a chance, as Andres Iniesta linked with Cesc Fabregas, who passed the ball to Lionel Messi, who in turn laid it off for Xavi to drag a shot wide of the post. The shot was disappointing, but the build-up play was encouraging, and at this stage in the season, that is the best we can hope for away from the Camp Nou.
Lionel Messi nearly opened the scoring early on with a typically cute finish, but the referee adjudged the Argentine to have controlled the ball with his hand and booked him for his troubles. As a result, Lionel Messi will miss his first match through yellow card accumulation, although luckily it is "only" against Sporting Gijon. Given that he will be travelling across the world to play in a meaningless friendly for Argentina, before travelling back to Barcelona, I think he would have been a doubt to start anyway, so this is a blessing in disguise for me at least.
Sergio Busquets was playing well in midfield, and after a rare venture forward he used his body positioning to win a free-kick in a dangerous position. The location seemed perfect for the left-foot of Messi, but Xavi stepped up and curled a decent attempt over the wall to force an acrobatic stop from Chelsea loanee Thibaut Courtois. The free kick was not too dissimilar to the one Marcos Senna managed to score earlier in the day in a 2-2 draw against Atheltic Bilbao, although it didn’t have the same end result.
In truth, the first half was devoid of many chances, but when Barcelona created their first clear cut chance of the match they took it. Lionel Messi embarked on one of his trademark runs, drawing around four Atleti defenders with him. This opened up the space for Cesc Fabregas, and once Leo supplied him with the ball he sent in a superb first-time cross with his left foot to the oncoming Dani Alves, and the Brazilian couldn’t miss from six yards out.
Barcelona had their lead, but the half did end on a sour note as Juanfran continued to frustrate Cesc Fabregas with niggling fouls, so naturally Cesc got his revenge with a crunching tackle right by the corner flag. Sure, he got a yellow card and it was "unnecessary", but it sent out a signal that Barcelona are not a team to be bullied. Diego Simeone had some work to do at half-time that’s for sure.
However, as noted by many Atletico fans during the half-time interval, Simeone’s short reign has been typified by cautious first half performances that are compensated for with more open second half displays. That was very much the case in this match as well. Atletico started the half with a spring in their step and an unquenchable passion to win the match, pressing Barcelona all over the pitch. Forcing a corner on 47 minutes, they found their equaliser.
As I mentioned in the preview, Atleti have really worked on their set pieces under the tutelage of Simeone and this corner kick was driven in, and bizarrely, flicked on by Sergio Busquets. That flick on was expertly volleyed into the net by Colombian striker Falcao, and the Madrid side were level. Yet another mistake away from home leading to a goal. This season is becoming awfully repetitive.
Atleti pushed for the goal that would take them into the lead, but never really created a clear-cut chance. Telling the truth, neither did Barcelona, but as Atletico tired, the Blaugrana started to force their way back into the fold. Dani Alves had an excellent game on the right, and his deep cross found Alexis Sanchez unmarked, but the Chilean could not direct his header on target. It could have proved costly as well, but Falcao’s attempted lob was saved well, even if it was unorthodox by Valdes.
Alves was replaced by Isaac Cuenca, while Pedro was brought on for Cesc as Barcelona went in search of that elusive winner. Surprisingly, it was the substitute Pedro who can claim an assist for the second game in succession, as he was fouled by Gabi for the free-kick that Messi scored. Tripped on the corner of the area, you wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Maybe Barca could swing in a cross, nothing more.
But that would be the human thing to do.
Lionel Messi stepped up, asked the referee for permission, before curling the ball into the far top corner, akin to Ronaldinho’s famous goal in the 2002 World Cup, all while the Atleti players were trying to get organised. It was superb improvisation, and who knows, with Real Madrid unconvincing in their 1-0 win away to Rayo Vallecano, maybe the league race is not over yet?
That’s not to say it could have been in the closing stages of the match, as Atleti came desperately close to another equaliser, but Victor Valdes stood firm to make two huge saves to win the match. The gap was reduced back down to 10 points, and after one of the toughest examinations of the season, the Blaugrana came out of it with a pass. Just barely mind you.
Man of the match is Victor Valdes for his massive saves, without him we would not have won the match. It is as simple as that. Next up is the international friendlies, and a home encounter with Sporting Gijon. Visca el Barca!