Barcelona strengthened their hold on the La Liga first place after defeating Atletico Madrid by two goals to none. The Catalans were the better team, helped in part by Diego Costa’s first half red card, but couldn’t break the deadlock until late in the game when Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi scored in consecutive minutes.
Both managers fielded their best available starting lineups, though both had some question marks in attacks. Diego Simeone due to fitness issues of Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata, while the recent performances of Malcom brought on discussions of Philippe Coutinho returning to the bench, but the latter would start alongside Suarez and Messi.
Barcelona started the match in attacking fashion while Atletico, predictably, opted for stability in defense with the occasional counter attack mixed in. In the early going neither side managed to create much, both having just a single half chance worth noting, but in the 14th minute Messi found the onrushing Jordi Alba on the left wing. Alba went alone on Jan Oblak because he did well to control the ball. The shot managed to beat the Slovenian on goal, but the ball bounced off the post and right back into the waiting hands of Oblak.
Atletico would counter immediately and Santiago Arias was presented with a good look on the right side, but Coutinho returned just in time to block the attempt. That half chance would mark the start of a good run for the hosts, but the Barcelona defense would handle all the threats well, only allowing Antoine Griezmann a shot from a tough angle that Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved with ease.
After surviving the sustained pressure, Barcelona would return the favor, but against a set Atletico defense creating anything proved a tall task. In the 23rd minute Messi won a free kick in a dangerous spot, though maybe a couple yards too far away, and the Argentine sent the ball over the crossbar. Four minutes later Barcelona brilliantly outplayed Atletico’s defense, with Coutinho being left with a fantastic opportunity, but Oblak made a fabulous save to preserve the scoreless tie.
At the half-hour mark, Jesús Gil Manzano, after some remarkable provocations and select words from Costa, sent the forward off with a direct red card. Costa had to be pulled away by a couple of his teammates as he struggled to contain his temper. After the tensions calmed, and a couple more yellow cards were shown to Costa’s teammates, play resumed with Barcelona controlling play.
Needing a win to stay in the title race, Simeone couldn’t just sit back with ten and waste time, but had to bring on an attacker. He did so in the 35th minute when Angel Correa joined play in place of right back Arias. While Barcelona were pushing forward, Atletico’s defense, even a man down, did well to shut down the Catalans. There were a couple more half-chances, like the Diego Godin turnover inside the area that Suarez botched or Messi’s shot from the edge of the area that was saved by Oblak, or the last second header from Coutinho that was also saved, but the two teams went into the break still scoreless.
No substitutions were made during the break and action on the pitch quickly resumed. Atletico would be the first to create anything, but from the long range free kick and the ensuing corner kick ter Stegen went untested. Barcelona then returned to the offensive, but they weren’t attacking with much flair or urgency. It was as if they were playing for a draw, knowing full well that Atletico needed a win to keep their hopes alive. But even though the Catalans weren’t playing in high-gear, in the 56th minute Messi sent a dangerous shot on goal, but once again Oblak was there to make the save.
In the 58th minute, Simeone brought on another attacker, again in place of a full-back - now two midfielders, Thomas Partey and Saul Niguez, were playing in the back-line. Atletico brought everybody forward and were pressing the ball-carrier deep into the Barcelona area, but the hosts remained very organized when Barcelona crossed the midfield line. However, with almost everybody committed forward, there were acres of space to exploit on the counter, and in the 62nd minute Messi and Suarez dashed to the other end and the Argentine managed to find Suarez in space for the chance, but Oblak made a great save. The Slovenian was in action again two minutes later, this time stopping Messi’s shot from the edge.
In between those two Barcelona opportunities, Valverde made his first substitution. As has become the norm, Arthur was taken off the pitch, though this time he was replaced by Malcom, who took his place on the right wing, sending Messi deeper into midfield. Barcelona were buzzing, and had two more shots on goal in the 69th minute, one from Messi and one from Malcom, but once again Oblak maintained a clean sheet.
Against the run of play, on a free kick that shouldn’t have been a free kick, Atletico created their first good look on goal in the second half. Griezmann floated the free kick to the far post where Rodri rose the highest, but his header missed wide. A couple minutes later Atletico won another aerial duel inside the Barcelona area, but once again the header went wide.
With ten minutes left to play Coutinho made way for Carles Alena. Shortly thereafter Atletico threated for the first time from open play, but Morata’s flick inside the area was excellently blocked by Clement Lenglet. The rebound caused some trouble as well but Saul’s try from the edge of the area was also blocked. Valverde made his last personnel change in the 85th minute when Nelson Semedo replaced Sergi Roberto.
Just seconds later Barcelona were in the lead. Seemingly out of nowhere, after missing numerous excellent chances, Suarez fired from 25-yards out, curling a shot just inside the far post to finally put one past Oblak. Before the Camp Nou would stop celebrating Suarez’s goal, Messi would add another. Messi was sent though on goal from midfield, but was caught by José Giménez at the crucial moment. That, however, proved only to be a speedbump as Messi managed to regain control, calmly made a couple steps to the middle before very simply slotting the ball past a helpless Oblak.
The remainder of the game was a mere formality, and with eleven points now between Barcelona and Atletico the remainder of the La Liga season should be as well. The next challenge, however, doesn’t come in La Liga, it comes in the Champions League where Barcelona will take on Manchester United at Old Trafford.