After drawing the hardest opponent left in the competition, Barcelona were bracing themselves for a typical tough night at the Vicente Calderón but the first half proved to be anything but. Atlético Madrid were choosing their moments of when to press and looked to identify Javier Mascherano as the man to close down.
Playing in Sergio Busquets’ usual position, it is no secret Mascherano’s passing is not that of the Spaniard’s but the area he excels in is nipping in and stealing the ball. It was through this that Barça got the opening goal of the tie. Antoine Griezmann had the ball inside the Barça half but Mascherano stepped up and prodded the ball away from the Frenchman. The ball found Luis Suárez who looked around him, realised he had no help and decided to make a run for goal. He flicked the ball past Stefan Savić and then outpaced the defender to collect the ball again. He drifted over to the left side of the goal, pulling the keeper across with him, before poking the ball into the opposite corner. It was 1-0 Barça and any hope Atleti had of keeping it tight had gone.
The goal had given Barça the opportunity to dictate the play. Lionel Messi, who had been reasonably quiet in the opening stages, dropped deeper to pick up the ball and start plays. It seemed the next goal was going to come again from a loss of possession from the home side. A poor pass backwards found Neymar who dribbled his way into the box, he attempted a quick one-two with Suárez but Neymar mis-controlled the return.
After his quiet spell, Messi was now heavily involved and doubled Barça’s lead in the 33rd minute. A long goal kick was controlled down by Suárez and he released the ball to Neymar. The Brazilian shifted it over to Messi who had Ivan Rakitić on his right side. Rakitić’s run had pulled Godín across and as Sergi Roberto was making an overlap run, Atlético were bracing for a cross. What actually happened was Rakitić ignored the run of Roberto and fed the ball back to Messi. On the edge of the area, Atlético struggled to get to him in time and Messi rifled in a ball into the very top left corner. With the speed of the shot, the keeper had no chance of getting close to it. A 2-0 scoreline had fans and pundits wondering if this was game over in the tie already.
Barcelona comfortably saw out the half with Atlético being restricted to long range efforts. It was a pleasing period for Luis Enrique but a lot of work to do for Diego Simeone.
The Atlético manager introduced Fernando Torres during the half time break and the one time Liverpool man made an instant impact. Giving Griezmann a strike partner meant it stretched the Barça centre backs across the pitch more. A quick one-two in the newly created space between Torres and club captain Gabs gave the latter a golden chance inside the box. A very last minute challenge from Jordi Alba was just enough to deny what looked a certain goal.
The tide had definitely turned and Atlético managed to pull one back just before the hour mark. A dangerous set piece allowed the centre backs to come forward and Godín was involved in the build up. Escaping his marker of Suárez, Godín had a free header across the six yard box. Griezmann was happy to leap and convert the cross into the net. Suárez was complaining of a foul and the replays showed he was pulled but it was a risk of the Uruguayan to go down and claim the foul rather than continuing to defend. There was a pull but it was not enough to make a physical man such as Suárez go down and it would have been smarter to just ensure Godín doesn’t have a free header.
The crowd began to believe again and grew louder in their voices. Just four minutes after their first, Atlético had a great chance to get their second goal. Filipe Luís broke down the edge of the box and drilled the ball across. Griezmann tapped it at point blank range but Cillessen was in the right place in the right time to block it.
The frequency of Atlético’s attacks was increasing and Luis Enrique made some suspect substitutions. He took off his midfield pairing of Rakitić and Gomes in favour of Denis Suárez and Rafinha. The two incoming players are more offensively minded which seemed the wrong choice at this time. Perhaps he was hoping Barcelona would control possession until the end of the game but the pressure from Atlético was not allowing it.
It was a long final 20 minutes for Barça as Atlético threw everything at it in search of an equaliser. Torres and Griezmann were firing away shots from outside of the area but they were wide or saved by the keeper.
Barcelona eventually saw out the game but an encouraging second half will give Atlético reasons to be hopeful in the second leg.