Listen To That Pin Drop
Whether it was the modus operandi or not, Messi was once again effectively neutralized in the 1st leg. The Argentine had little space to work any magic at all – much less any time to operate when he did find the ball at his feet. Atlético were content with letting him throw himself against the Rojiblancos defensive wall, rubbing him off the ball with two, sometimes three suffocating defenders. They didn’t exclusively shadow him, but instead, the effort from the Atlético defense was to chip away at him while not being overtly aggressive in defending him, and still remaining honest to staying in position all the time. There were instances in the game where the Argentine made an appearance, but those were just that: moments, un-sustained. Though his efforts were relentless, Simeone’s men slowly erased him off the radar of the game to a faint murmur, which was life draining for the Blaugranes supporters, with the minutes of the match dwindling down to full time.
There is no question Messi can influence the result of a match whilst not scoring. His assist numbers have been steady over the years, and so far this season, he’s provided 10 helpers for his teammates. But with such a defensively disciplined and balanced team end to end like Simeone’s side, they’ve reduced him to a non-factor. The Argentine failed to score or tally an assist for the first time since March 12th in the loss to Valladolid. In fact, Atlético Madrid have also successfully kept Messi off the score line this season altogether. Despite playing 300+ minutes against Rojiblancos, the Argentine has come up empty – the most jarring statistic being the missed PK in the Spanish Super Cup that shocked the Blaugranes. Though he’s been absolutely prolific against many an opposition, you’d have to go back to December 16th, 2012 to see the last time the Argentine scored against this team. Currently, Atléti is on a hot-streak by keeping La Pulga at bay. However, with the 2nd leg at the Calderon, Barça fans will rejoice in the fact that their number 10 has accounted for a third of the team’s goals playing away from Camp Nou stadium.
The bottom line is this: the percentage of a Barcelona win resulting is greater when Messi produces, so far he hasn’t done it against Rojiblancos. And by all accounts after four games, they clearly have his number. If he is approaching Living Legend status, then Atlético is fast developing the formula for Legend Killer. There's no question about it.
The Blaugranes faithful will have to deify Messi at a later date, when he finally exorcises his own Rojiblancos demons. Touché?
Despite all the robust pundit applause and praise they’ve received all season long with a remarkable run of form in La Liga and the UCL, Atlético looked the part of the one-trick pony after being emasculated with the injury to and early departure of their go-to man, Diego Costa – likely the further aggravation of an already existing injury. Cules, that expression on Simeone’s face immediately after Costa pulled up – it was the same expression you had when Valdes was lying on the cart, being exited off the pitch. Devastating, yes indeed.
After the injury, Atlético were content with actually giving the ball back to Barcelona and "parking the bus" and the very few times they won the ball, they almost absent-mindedly just lobbed the ball to the spot where they expected to see their Spain international to make his run. Tell tale signs that they missed him almost immediately.
30+ goals in all competitions won’t be easy to account for because the scorer is now deemed doubtful for the return leg. That is most concerning for his side since their margin of victory has been shrinking ever so slightly in every competition since their demolition of AC Milan 4-1 on aggregate in the previous round of the UCL. His strikes past the opposition’s net-minder counts for nearly 40% of Rojiblancos's total number of goals – clearly they need his production. They may be able to salvage wins against lesser quality opponents, but his absence will be a detrimental void against Barcelona in the return leg.
Atlético is undoubtedly superb with him in the line-up, but subtract his invaluable presence, goals and performances and you only get a very good team. Arguably, there is no one else with Diego’s will, hunger, physical pace, balls-out intensity, and productivity that can pick up the slack on his squad. It’s safe to say Atlético Madrid's success hinges on Costa this season.
Shuffle The Playing Cards
These two sides have accumulated 25 yellow cards head-to-head this season, with Atlético Madrid edging Barcelona by having been booked 3 more times, including 2 red cards. This was emphatically underlined with Rojiblancos’s total of six yellows to Barcelona’s two in their last match. With the frustrations of the stalemate taking its toll on both teams, no one has been impervious to the emotional rollercoaster effect. Even the usual cool-calm Iniesta seemed to arrive at a boiling point as he also was booked in this last game. Increasingly so, the Rojiblancos side seem more to be the team walking the thin line, edging closer and closer to a melting point – two Madrids don't make a positive. With the increasing pressure mounting on each side to get the definitive result, we’ll likely see more than a yellow card soon that could end up being the ugly glaring stat that catapults one of these teams into the next round of the UCL.
The Tipping Point
Andres Iniesta’s form has been spectacular as of late. He was wearing Messi’s shoes and at times even filled them adequately as the playmaker for Barcelona. Forget the Argentine for a minute; we’re talking this night only, against this staunch Simeone squad. He was vehement in weaving around, dancing past, free flowing like mercury through Atlético's tightening formation as they shuddered at Don Andreas repeatedly closing into the 18-yard box – Iniesta was the Blaugranes best player by far. Man of the Match performance. He supplied the time, and space needed to sustain the Catalan attack, and it finally paid off when he created for Barcelona in a fabulous Neymar strike on goal. And if he puts in another of these wonderful outings in the second leg at the Calderon, he will be one reason Barcelona staggers away winners of this frustrating yet exciting rubber match.
Iniesta’s play has been pure inspiration in the last three weeks with his performance in La Liga spilling over into European competition. Since the 2nd leg of the Manchester City game, Iniesta has chipped in 5 assists and 2 goals. And you get the feeling that his output is still building towards culmination as the Catalans prepare to battle out the final weeks for all the crown jewels against the two Madrid sides. No argument that Messi has scored huge goals and received the headlines since Barcelona disposed of City a month ago, Illusionista has been the catalyst since. He has been the spark that’s ignited the attack. With La Pulga effectively ball and chained, Iniesta’s skill set and play become more valuable, and an additional point of worry for Atlético.
Neymar too has responded with goals and picked up his game, in the face of growing criticism in recent weeks no less. His play was crucial in creating the chances that resulted in penalty kicks against Real Madrid in El Clasico and another against Espanyol. His most important contribution to this match-up has been his two big-time goals against Simeone’s side – that’s two MORE goals than Messi: once in the Spanish Super Cup at the onset of this season, and again in the first leg. When Barcelona’s needed a goal against Rojiblancos, Neymar has been there, this time equalizing and pulling the Blaugranes out from the jaws of defeat. He has been squirrel-fast and the Atlético defense has had daunting issues with his shiftiness and accelerating stride with the ball, resulting in repeated fouls on the Brazilian. Though his exaggerations and tumbling to the ground rolling about has to irritate Atlético and their fans, he has produced against them. In the process he’s becoming the inevitable thorn in their side. Rojiblancos will do well to make note of his positioning and will have to do much better to counter his efforts next time. His play alongside Iniesta, both attacking the left of the 18-yard box swings the momentum marginally in Barcelona’s favor. Tactically, we should see a more pragmatic Blaugranes gameplan in the second leg, with the Catalans play in the final third being channeled through the tandem of Iniesta and Neymar. It’s a no-brainer.
Messi might be the focal point yet again, but the Spaniard and Brazilian are paying huge dividends for the Catalans at the moment.
The Nature of the Beast
Injuries happen and are an aspect of the game we all dislike. However at this point in the season, every player is waking up feeling a bruise, a laceration or two, a bit of stiffness, soreness – you name it, it’s there – from the minor to the extreme, every team left in the UCL is dealing with a setback – Barcelona and Atlético Madrid are no exception, by any stretch of the imagination. And some level of rehab or therapy is taking place somewhere behind closed doors. Will it ultimately determine which teams advance in a war of attrition? It might, by a hairline of margins, but that’s very highly doubtful, because every game still has to be played out. It will impact the outcome of this tie, no doubt. The absence of Victor Valdes and Gerard Pique will surely make the Blaugranes faithful nervous and on the edge of their seats. Rojiblancos, well, their situation isn’t without doubt with Diego Costa questionable – their success hinges on him being healthy and in the line-up.
You have to think now that something has to give. There has to. Atlético Madrid’s play, compact positioning inside the 18 and physical style of pressuring and defending stymied Barcelona’s formidable attack once again. It seems only fair that these fierce battles have ended as they have, evened up, but it also leaves a sour taste in your mouth knowing if there is another draw in the 2nd leg, a winner still has to be chosen – again by default, if you will.
Now that result would be almost too unfair and unfortunate.