What a match. It’s easy to reduce football to theory, and say that for yet another match Barça didn’t play well, certain players were slightly off color, this happened and that happened.
We will get plenty of that type of analysis after the match, from pundits far and wide. What made this match exceptional for me was that Barça didn’t play well, faced a team that was playing a perfect match, and won by playing its game. Barça played well enough to win. Footballing sonnets are built upon a great team playing in full song, but championships are built upon a great team playing off key and still getting it done. It’s the leeway granted by extravagant supplies of talent.
The match kicked off to the blueprint of the previous Barça matches, only with a much higher-quality, more resolute opponent. Atleti was brilliant at compressing space, making Barça play off the back foot, getting to every last loose ball first and winning every 50/50 challenge. Only Pique and Mascherano were up to the physical task, as the team looked slow and clunky.
Atleti took a deserved lead when Alba fell down, his usual trick of hoping to draw a foul after he gets undressed by an attacker. Undiamo Mallenco was having none of it, and after a folly of defending that saw Alves slack and Rakitic a spectator, Barça went down 0-1 at home.
Not content with that, Atleti kept coming at Barça, hard and fast. The complicating thing was that they were also being physical past the point of acceptability, and Mallenco was doling out fouls and finally, cards as the match teetered back and forth, Atleti pressing and Barça weathering the storm until the engine got warmed up. Then, an extraordinary thing happened.
Filipe Luis gave Messi a hard foul, one of his many cardable offences, and it woke up the Barça dynamo. He tracked back to break up an Atleti attack, fast strong and physical and suddenly, his teammates were awake. Messidependencia isn’t a thing any longer, but Messinspiration apparently still is. That defensive play sparked Barça into life, and the ball started moving quickly. Suddenly they were on the front foot, and Atleti was hanging on. The largest difference is that the quality of the players Atleti was trying to keep at bay would prove to be too much.
Messi went from involved bystander to electric, dominant presence. Atleti was set up to control Neymar, figuring that he would be doing all of the damage. Who didn’t, in the form that he was in. But Messi has not only footballing skills to call upon, but the power of inspiration. He started moving faster, and so did the ball and his teammates as things swung from a second goal for Atleti seeming inevitable, to a first for Barça all but certain.
When that goal came it was beautiful, a scythe of a goal with roots in creativity, pragmatism, beauty and power. A ball was worked loose and Mascherano, quickly seeing the available advantage, laced a long, hard, sharp pass to Neymar, who got the dominoes rolling. He sent Alba into space and the Barça left back, feeling the exact right moment, found Messi, who had gotten inside position on his defenders and smoked the one-touch shot past Oblak.
It wasn’t just 1-1. Atleti almost reacted as though that goal was worth two. For the first 20 minutes of the match they had been dominant. Barça played football for about 30 seconds and suddenly, the score was equal. The second goal was as exceptional as the first, even though very different as Dani Alves laced a seeing-eye long pass to Suarez, who bodied off his defender and stroked home past Oblak. It was a goal very similar to his winner against Real Madrid last season, and resulted in the same scoreline.
It was a different kind of violence, of the psychological kind, to a team that had done everything right and was, almost inexplicably, down a goal. It only made sense in the context of great players doing what they do. Atleti is a team, an indomitable, deep force. But they don’t have any great players, even as they have very, very good ones. Great players, however, can change everything.
The sad part about the resilient, dynamic display by Atleti is that it was sullied by a moment of reprehensible violence. When Filipe Luis went in, studs bared, HARD on the left knee of Messi, a red card resulted. It was the kind of challenge that can end careers, even if that might not be the intention. After having just watched, the night previous, the challenge that ended Rafinha’s season, it was a terrifying moment as a vile act brought down a gem of a player. The red was clear and warranted, and if the Liga had a shard of guts and decency, Filipe Luis would be facing a lengthy suspension. That kind of play can’t be rewarded, or condoned in any way. Not following up would be tacitly condoning it, and would be a shameful action.
Neymar was being kicked and fouled the entire match, in a league that realizes that it can’t play football with Barça, so it has to try to kick them off the pitch. Atleti came as close as anyone to playing head-to-head with Barça. They came out in the second half on fire, playing as if they had twelve instead of ten, very intelligently compressing space on the pitch to minimize their numerical disadvantage, and Barça played right into their hands, too fond of personal rondos instead of using the full length and width of the pitch to create imbalances as time after time, Atleti took advantage.
Then a pair of key moments decisively decided the outcome of the match. In the Barça box, some exceptional play by Atleti found Griezmann alone on the doorstep. He thought he could just touch the ball past Bravo, who called upon some kind of witchcraft to kick the shot wide, the goal that would have equalized the match at 2-2.
On the other end, another gem of a long pass for Suarez was played by Godin, who tried to make what would have been one of the tackles of his career. But he went in late and hard, and Suarez sold the contact. Godin’s second yellow was the result, as Atleti went down to nine.
What made this just from my chair is that you can’t kick a team off the pitch. If you build up fouls and yellows by trying to kick a team off the pitch, you’re only a foul away from a red card. Barça’s players are too good with the ball at their feet for any team to be able to survive a match like that, and Atleti was no exception. Physical football is one thing, thuggery is something else. Persistent fouling in an effort to put an opponent off of their game might be acceptable for many, but even if we weren’t head over heels for a team that only wants to play football, it shouldn’t sit well.
Atleti didn’t go down to nine because of any conspiracy. It went down to nine because it chose violence at key times over football and reaped the result of those decisions, moments that sullied an excellent match for them in all other respects.
When Barça went up two men, the team seemed to just stroke the ball around. The instinct that had me wanting to see them step on the throttle, wanted to see them destroy the interlopers, was tempered by the reality that this is a team that has been playing a match every few days, a string that will continue. Conservative and pragmatic? Sure. And those things can be unsatisfactory. Atleti got the ball back and made efforts, but the overriding feeling was that Barça had the match under control. A third goal would have been lovely, but the energy conservation might ultimately turn out to be even nicer.
This was a potential six-pointer, as Barça went clear atop the table by three points, and have a match in hand against Sporting Gijon. Notch that and the lead is six points atop the table. Barça had Liga leads in the season nobody wanted and Atleti kept coming back to remain in contention, but this team is harder than that. With Luis Enrique as coach, Barça has played Atleti six times, and won them all.
This was also a remarkable, compelling match of football that was probably much easier for a neutral to enjoy as the tension ratcheted higher with every Atleti foray in to the Barça end. Relief came with the final whistle, a tweeting that also sounded like the final call for a major, bitter Barça rival. The season is still plenty long, and all three of the top teams will drop points yet. But the win was decisive, not only for Barça but for those who dislike seeing a team kicked off the pitch.