Barcelona came out victorious in what was without a doubt the most anticipated match of the 18th round of La Liga. Barcelona were led by their star forward trio of Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, all of whom scored a goal. Atletico Madrid, however, were only able to score a single goal from a penalty, along with handing out several bumps and bruises.
|FC Barcelona||Atletico Madrid
|Shots on Target||7||3|
After surprising fans, disappointing them even, with the starting line-ups in recent games, Luis Enrique named his strongest XI in what was one of Barcelona's most important, if not the most important game of the season so far. A win would see Barcelona remain in close pursuit of eternal rival, Real Madrid, while a loss, a draw even, would remove them even further from first place in the standings.
The match coverage started with a joyous occasion, as Messi was honored by the LFP for breaking Telmo Zarra's long-standing record for the league's top goal-scorer. Proceedings continued with a moment of silence for the victims of recent attacks in France, accompanied with messages "Tots som Charlie".
Atletico Madrid came storming out of the gate, threatening as early as 15 second into the game, but the Barcelona center-back duo of Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano were up to the early task. Atletico tried to take a page from Real Sociedad's book, but this time around Barcelona's defense reacted better.
After the early pressure, Barcelona were able to assert their possession play, but as has been the case since Diego Simeone took over as coach Atletico were defensively extremely disciplined. But as Barcelona were able to consistently control the ball, apart from a couple short periods of time, they were bound to eventually break down the defense.
The first such occasion came in the 9th minute when Neymar made a strong run across the pitch and nicely found Messi on the right. Messi immediately turned toward goal, made a couple of steps forward and fired a right-footed shot, but it only hit the outside part of the net. Three minutes later Barcelona had another chance to open the scoring, and this time they were successful. Messi dazzled everybody on the right with some nifty moves and sent a great ball to the middle where Suarez was wide open. However, the Uruguayan reacted poorly to the ball, only deflecting it slightly. But as luck would have it the ball continued its way to Neymar on the far post who was able to slide to send the ball into the back of the net.
The very next minute Barcelona had another good chance to score. Jordi Alba almost surprised Miguel Angel Moya with a shot from the left side, but the goalkeeper made a strong save. He was, however, unable to fully control the rebound and gave up a chance to Suarez to score, but he had barely any angle to shoot and Moya was able to make the save.
In the 16th minute José Giménez made Neymar pay for the goal he scored just minutes earlier. After a set play from a free-kick that saw Neymar attempt a shot on target on the edge of the box Giménez slid in studs first and caught the Brazilian square in the ankle. The referee, the well-known Alberto Undiano Mallenco, swallowed his whistle and allowed the play to continue. It was a challenge that could've easily had Giménez sent to an early shower. Though Mallenco was quickly shown the error of his ways as Neymar quickly showed him the heavily bloodied sock. Neymar was carted off the pitch but he quickly returned, bloody sock and all.
That started a sequence of heavy tackling, dirty tackling even, that saw the visiting side only pick up a single yellow card. But while Barcelona players certainly picked up some bruises during that time it hardly discouraged them from launching attack after attack toward Moya's goal.
In the 23rd minute Neymar had an open look on goal from well inside the penalty area, but his header inexplicably missed the target. The chance was created just about solely by Suarez who made a run down the left side, leaving Giménez in his dust, but the finish from the Brazilian was lacking. About five minute later Neymar led the counter attack and again found Messi on the right side who quickly darted toward goal, but his shot was well saved by Moya. The rebound fell right back to Messi, who tried to send it to Neymar in the middle, but Mallenco blew the play dead for a foul by Neymar in front of the goal.
Tensions started to boil over three minutes later, after Mario Mandžukić brought down Sergio Busquets and then angrily talked/protested/yelled at the Barcelona midfielder, presumably for going down too quickly. The two had to be separated by teammates and struggled to calm down for some time.
But even that didn't seem to faze Barcelona who doubled their lead just two minutes after the incident. This time it was Messi's turn to go on a long run straight at the Atletico defense, but as soon as he encountered traffic he passed the ball through the defenders, right into the path of Suarez. Suarez might have missed some easy chances in his Barcelona career so far, but this was a chance he wasn't going to miss. The visitors had something to argue about that goal, however, as Mandžukić and Diego Godin protested that Messi handled the ball when he received it.
Barcelona would have one more chance to add to their lead in the first half as Dani Alves found Messi near the penalty spot with a brilliant high ball, but the Argentine just missed the goal with the header. That would be the last chance of the half in which Barcelona barely allowed Atletico get a whiff of the ball and played an all-around great half, arguably the best half since Lucho took over as manager of the team.
Similarly to the first half Atletico against started the second half with some early pressure, but like in the first half Barcelona again withstood the pressure and then started to control the ball. With Barcelona holding on to the ball Atletico started to assert their physical play. They also started to pressure the ball-carrier high up the pitch which allowed Barcelona some more space once they've gotten over the halfway line. But that process was made more difficult because of the high pressure.
Mallenco struck again in the 56th minute when he pointed to the spot after Jesus Gamez came tumbling down in the penalty area after the slighted of touches by Messi on. Gamez even hesitated in his process of falling down, but because the ball escaped him he decided to fall down and won a penalty because of it. Mandžukić took responsibility for it and powered it straight up the middle, right under the crossbar to halve Barcelona's lead.
With Atletico's physical play intensifying and the lack of punishment from the referee it was becoming more and more clear that Mallenco has completely lost control of the game. And when Ivan Rakitić was mauled in the penalty area by Giménez, not touched like Gamez was, but mauled, several Barcelona players wanted a penalty of their own. But they would only see Suarez pick a yellow card. Barcelona would continue to see more of the ball, but the routes that were so exposed in the first half were no longer open.
Simeone made his first substitution of the match in the 68th minute when he brought documented Barcelona-killer, Fernando Torres, on the pitch in place of defensively oriented Gabi. Six minutes later Simeone further improved Ateltico's aerial game by taking the surprisingly quiet Antoine Griezmann off the pitch and replaced him with Raul Garcia.
With it now only being a one-goal game Barcelona didn't look as comfortable in attack as they did in the first half and you could feel it in the air that Atletico were going to get their chance to at least tie the game. The first one came in the 77th minute when a dangerous cross was sent to a wide open Torres in the middle, but Claudio Bravo left the line in time to collect the loose ball.
The next one came just two minutes later, when a corner kick was never cleared beyond 25 yards. Arda Turan made things happen with a lovely ball through the legs of Pique and the ball was then dangerously sent in front of goal. Bravo got a hand on it, but only directed it back into the danger area, but luckily nobody was there to put the ball into the back of the unguarded net.
With more and more space allowed by Atletico in their third, Barcelona had some good looks on goal in the last stage of the game. The first came in the 84th minute when Neymar beautifully found Messi on the opposite side of the pitch, but the Argentine's shot was too central to pose a real threat to Moya. Barcelona finally put the game out of reach in the 87th minute when some great link up between Suarez, Messi and Rakitić led to what in the end turned out to be a very fortuitous scoring opportunity as Rakitić's back pass missed the intended target, Messi. However, Garcia reacted poorly to the ball coming through and it ricochet back to Messi who tapped the ball into the back of the net.
Over the last few minutes Lucho completed a couple substitutions to take some time off the clock as Rakitić and Suarez were taken off the pitch and were replaced by Rafinha and Pedro. Neymar, on the other hand, showed some incredible will power and strength, surviving the full 90 minutes despite suffering six fouls and a handful of non-calls, including the aforementioned blow to the ankle.
This performance could turn out to be the one that turns the season around for Barcelona, or it could just be a single bright spot on what will be an unremarkable season. It's too soon to say, but for now let's enjoy the victory and see where the season, Lucho and this board take Barcelona.
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- Barcelona vs Atlético Madrid Live Stream: How to Watch La Liga Online, TV