Barça 2, Atleti 1, aka “Thirty minutes of hell”

Whee, wasn’t that fun! To reduce this match to a tale of two halves would be … welp … reductive. The lingering question however, is what exactly did we see today? We know that Barça extended its record to 7-0 over Atleti under Luis Enrique. The rest?

— One school of thought is that Barça managed the match just as they tried to do against RM, only they didn’t screw it up this time. (I’ll take today’s Jordi Alba over Saturday’s any day of the week.)

— Another school of thought is that Barça got a right smart reaming from its Mister in the locker room, came out and raised hell.

— Still another is that Diego Simeone miscalculated, thinking that his team could intelligently cower on the rocks like aggro seals, playing off the counter in an effort to nick another precious away goal.

— What if it’s all of the above?

In the first half of this match, things went exactly as Simeone would have hoped, beginning with grabbing an away goal from the smart/brilliant/deadly/stupid Fernando Torres, who also benefited from some schoolboy defending to grab a goal that was so easy, the Barça defense should be ashamed. And by defense, that’s from midfield on back. No pressure on the passer, no pressure on the runner, nothing whatsoever on Torres. It was like Atleti ran a practice pitch session with these little people sorta in the way. Shirts were even the same color as practice cones.

The mess began when the Atleti mid was allowed to receive a pass in acres of space as Busquets comes in late to the action. Torres gets goal side of Alves. Pique came up to go for the steal/block, and only he knows why he deemed it prudent to leave Torres. Perhaps he thought that Mascherano would rotate over. Didn’t happen, and Torres scored one of the easiest goals he is ever going to nail down in a major competition against a top team.

Mascherano was livid, and rightly so. It was a ridiculous goal to give up, especially from a player who has made a living out of tormenting Barça. Poor Ter Stegen hesitated a bit, then decided he would make Torres go for the nine hole, and try to close his legs for the block. Nope.

At this point it was 0-1, and no real signs of life as Barça continued its love affair with the ball. “Oooh. Pretty. Let me dribb … Hey, mister, give me my ball back!” Dribbling into closed spaces was never, ever going to work against Atleti, no matter how many times Barça players tried it. Messi, Neymar, Alves, Suarez, all had passes and efforts meet an untimely demise at the feet of Atleti defenders.

In his coal-black heart, Simeone must have been exulting. Had you told him he would be down to 10 with an away goal up he would have signed in blood, because being down to ten doesn’t change anything about what Atleti do, which is close down space, foul when necessary and shatter the game into a series of minute-long bursts.

The key to breaking them down was simple, of course. Even the most addle-headed coach knows that the ball moves faster than any man can with it. It seemed to take Barça a half of football to figure that out, but in the second half they laid siege to the Atleti goal. The result was about 35 minutes of hell as chance after chance was created, from move after move always based in ball and player movement. The pam-pam-pam-pam was back as Atleti ran from side to side in the face of a Barça that intelligently switched the pitch time and again.

And of course, both goals had to come from Atleti’s chief tormentor of late, Luis Suarez, one off a “Huh? What?” moment where he found himself in the exact right spot, the other from a powerful header that left Oblak with no chance. In between and around, Messi just missed a bicycle, Neymar thwacked the crossbar, Godin thwarted another possible Neymar putback, and Barça raised the kind of hell that, had they been interested in doing the same against RM, the unbeaten streak would be at 40 … now 41 matches and counting.

Would it have mattered if Atleti hadn’t been down to 10? Doubtful. It’s been a great while since we have seen supercollider Barça, where ball and players ping around like subatomic particles. All Atleti could do was stick out legs, feet, limbs and hope that they would tire, that they could get possession for a bit to get a respite. Then they lost it, and the maelstrom began anew. This was dazzling football, and Atleti was lucky to have conceded only two goals, a credit to the demon that watches over them, and defenders who turned themselves inside out.

Suarez scored the first, grabbed the ball and ran to the center circle. There was more work to be done. Celebrate on the run, now let’s go. He is a striker who thrives in the compressed space of a team defending in its own half, as the best worst player in the game just needs a sliver of space. Jordi Alba will swear to his grandchildren that his cattywompus shot was in fact a pass, just as Suarez will swear to his that he was right there, just waiting for the pass. Okay, lads … gotcha. The ball went in, and if you listen carefully, you can still hear the echoes of the explosion of sound that came from the Camp Nou, a release at the terminus of hope, clenched teeth and belief.

The second Suarez goal was just a player running around, taking advantage of ball movement and defenders having entirely too many dangerous players to watch. His header will be seen, in hindsight, as easy as Torres’ goal, a gift that every now and again comes to an attacker against a top-quality opponent. Everyone on the pitch was constant danger, as they wanted nothing more than the ball. When the wrong person had it, they converged, took it back and started again.

Barça was extraordinary for that second half as a team, even as individual players weren’t at their best. We can leave it to the big brains to parse why, but for about 35 minutes, Barça was just as much of a team, an interconnected unit hell-bent on doing damage, as Atleti. It was strength against strength.

Atleti is adept at compressing and isolating space, reducing a match to a series of individual battles that they will almost always win, even against the likes of Messi, Neymar and Suarez. Barça corrected the mistakes it was making, and that was that. Maybe it was, simply enough, a team knowing exactly what it could do against an inferior opponent. So many maybes. The away goal is huge, and the tie is still in play. The chief difficulty is that Atleti will not have Torres for the return leg, and he is the only player they have who can play in a way that upsets the Barça defense. Today he scored one and almost created a second, calling upon Ter Stegen to make a wonderful save.

Speaking of, there was sequence in the second half where Ter Stegen intercepted a ball then made an outlet pass to a streaking Neymar, a sequence that eventually ended in the first goal. There can be no clearer illustration of his value to the team than that sequence, first proactively clearing an inbound pass that on most teams, CBs have to manage, then putting a pass over distance right onto the feet of Neymar at almost midway, past the Atleti pressing danger zone, putting the ball where attacking pressure could be immediately applied.

Barça got the result that they needed. And for those who claim that the Camp Nou can’t be loud, can’t rock like a stadium filled with passionate supporters baying for blood, just crank up the audio during that second half. The old gray lady sounded like a Bundesliga stadium and the team responded. As Pique said in his presser, “When we have the ball and our fans behind us … ” That roar was the answer the team was looking for, and two goals were the payoff.

Various people will find various faults with today’s match, as there were many in that first half. Many will say that Atleti is still in this tie, and they are. But a 1-1 would have made them much happier than a 2-1 loss, because now they have to chase the tie at home. There is no way they are going to be able to stop Barça from scoring, which means they are going to have to come out, guns blazing because they will, in all likelihood, need at least two goals. It’s a daunting prospect against a team that is going through a phase.

Last season, Barça hit the gas right around March, and rocketed off into the distance. This season, between a mess of a summer and months of matches every three days, that throttle pedal is still there, but the turbo boost has to be applied more selectively. For about 30 minutes, Barça showed what the beast is like under full throttle. As the matches dwindle and reserves needn’t be salvaged, we will see more and more of that remarkable entity.

For now, let’s be content with fits and starts, and understand the occasional miscalculation for what it is: a momentary glitch in the machine, a thing that is more than capable of righting itself.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

26 Comments

  1. luisthebeast
    April 5, 2016

    Strange game.At the start we had two great chances that Leo and Ney missed.But i had the feeling that we are gonna score two goals and we will be ok.Then a huge mistake and a atletiko mid alone.I dont like to blame a player but Busi seems to be in wrong place.Then the red card.And i remember 2010 and 2012 and i was like oh shit!But we played amazing football.The difference is that now we have Ney and Suarez.And this Atletiko know how to defend.Better than anyone.So my thoughts:The team is so tired.Body and brain.They cant press as they want and then they cant close quickly the gaps in transition.Also to be honest our defenders are not the best to avoid a dribble.In life u cant have it all.They are excellent with the ball.Our mids work hard and Rakitic…what to say,the guy have my endless respect.Well they all have it.Maybe we go to SF maybe not.I dont care.That break after our non stop schedule killed our form.We are the best but u cant win the human nature.

  2. lala10
    April 6, 2016

    Enter Your Comment… suarez is a tool. could easily have been sent off.

  3. TITO
    April 6, 2016

    I know that is unreal to expect the same arttitude during the entire season, or hell even during an entire match, but as i have said already, it is the final strech of the season. They have to give it all if they want it all.
    It’s clear that they are tired, exausted but they still have the will to win a game cause they know what it means in silverwear.
    This game reminded me so much of the one against Chelsea (2006,2007 i think). Drogba Scores and we are 1 down. Than in the second half an unknown Argentinian comes in and he scores one and sets one up (Maxi). We know how that tie ended, we got beaten 4-2 in London. I hope this time the quality we have will make the difference.
    I have already stated, we have the best players in the game that can practically beat any team in the world. In order to achieve greatness they have to show the same attitude as in the second half last night. Pass the ball more,quick one-two’s, stronger tackles, run much more…
    All in all , to bring back the fear that the opponents have when they face us.

  4. georgjorge
    April 6, 2016

    Thank you for that great article! It’s not all black-and-white. I also would really like Messi to rest the next game, he seemed totally off yesterday, his skill still made him dangerous but he made the wrong decision or executed it poorly far too often.

    • barca96
      April 6, 2016

      Not possible to rest Messi as Suarez is suspended. Perhaps late in the 2nd half when the game is won. But this is Anoeta we’re talking about and they’ve just defeated Sevilla at their home ground where both U.S. and EE lost.

  5. stefan2k
    April 6, 2016

    Thanks Kx, fully agree with your write-up. I was quite angry with Suarez at half time but one can never write him off. Impressive display in second half… A beast unleashed

    Also hearing the crowd for once made me happy

  6. barca96
    April 6, 2016

    It was a totally unfair red card, his second foul and his second yellow says Felipe Luiz.

    Did I miss anything for the past 21 years of watching football? Does the FIFA rule book says that a 2nd foul can’t be a yellow card? What a stupid remark coming from a professional player.

    And in between the 1st and 2nd yellow card, Torres made a very similar tackle and it was committed at the same area the 1st yellow card but it wasn’t called as advantage was called. Torres was asking for a red card for the whole night.

    I do think that Busquets should’ve been booked for a tackle shortly after the red card and Suarez should’ve gotten a red for slapping Luiz.

    It is so frustrating that now everyone (the haters) online is discussing about the (justified) red card and Suarez’ non calls instead of talking about the great 2nd half display by the team.

    I also notice on the Guardian many users saying how we always play against 10 men. Well, what can we do when the other team decides to commit fouls? Should the referee refrain from penalizing the opponent team to make sure that we play against 10 men? We have the ball and penetrate and the other teams are defending and makes challenges. Logically the other team are more inclined to get cards.

    • G6O
      April 6, 2016

      We have the ball and penetrate and the other teams are defending and makes challenges.

      It wasn’t even down to that.

      The first yellow was for a totally unnecessary foul on Neymar committed after two other Atletico players tried to bring him down (with no intention to go for the ball on any of those challenges).

      The second one was also completely unnecessary — nowhere near the ball, directly at Busquets’ standing leg.

      There are yellows that you get because you fouled after getting beaten so you have no option but to foul if you are to stop you opponent. And then there are the ones that are completely unnecessary, to which category these clearly belonged.

  7. lala10
    April 6, 2016

    Enter Your Comment… Atleti play like thugs. They foul incessantly and then cry foul. They dive and do all sorts of the dirty tricks imaginable.

    Those who think we won because they were ten men are just bitter souls. They do not apply the same logic when the referee’s call is against us. Not a lot was said of Ramos not being sent off in the Classico. It was only referred to in passing. They also forget that we have beaten Atleti countless times even if they have led.

    Suarez not being sent off is a legitimate concern for them.

  8. TITO
    April 6, 2016

    Suarez slapping was in no way a red card, max a yellow one. Watch it closely and you will see how Luis made a meal out of nothing.
    A contrary to that, take a look at the foul on Neymar (AM player name) where if he got through he would probably be one on one with the keeper cause of his speed. Now that’s a foul between a yellow and a red card.

    • G6O
      April 6, 2016

      True. The slap was a yellow. Which should have been a red because the kick at Juanfran before that should have been a yellow too.

      But then the foul against Neymar should have been a red too — it was between yellow and red because he was going through but there was still another defender on the line of play, but it was also between yellow and red because if you watch it closely it was a horrible tackle on its own. So when you put those two together it’s a red.

  9. lala10
    April 6, 2016

    Enter Your Comment… Suarez deserved to be sent off for the Juanfran off the ball incident

  10. Lord Eddard Stark A.K.A BrichimbrodvOken, the vulnerable one
    April 6, 2016

    .

    THOUGHTS (during & after) :

    1. Messi is in a serious funk. I have never seen him mistime shots and commit poor touches so often as he has the past two games. He needs to be rested.

    2. Neymar has to bury those. He had at least 4 clear goal scoring opportunities from close range.

    3. When I saw torres’ first goal and the subsequent red card, I started getting deja-vus of inter 2010 and chelsea 2012. Those anxieties were heightened after neymar’s hitting the crossbar and another shot going wide by just an inch. I thought to myself “is this another one of those days? when the ball just doesn’t go in? when the opponent wins the game of inches?

    4. As i thought those negative thoughts, i reassured myself by saying “the signs may feel the same, but the team is vastly diffferent. For one, we have suarez and neymar”. But suarez was having one of his worst games for us.

    5. Then suarez, completely nullified up until that point pops up with two crucial goals. This is the thing with him. He is indeed the worst best player and the best worst player. He has that knack of popping up with goals at crucial times and out of nothing.

    6. 2-1 is alright, but given that we had scored 2 and still had 20 minutes to play against ten men, we should have scored one more if not two.

    7. The tie is very delicately poised. 1-0 will be enough for atleti to go through. And it is a very probable score line, if barca continue to not take their chances. However i expect us to go through in another nervy close encounter.

    8. It’s just atleti’s bad luck that they drew us again (or our bad luck). Against any other team (EE or Bayern even) Atleti would have had a great chance. For all of people’s cries of UEFAlona, no one seems to talk about EE’s or bayern’s continuous exhausting luck in draws when we always get the toughest teams to eliminate. Anyhow, have to beat the best to be the best and barca never complain.

    9. messi’s overhead kick was a bit funny to see. It felt like a rarest case of embellishment from a player who keeps things always elementary and simple.

    10. Is it just me or does it seem like iniesta’s talents are not being utilised properly in this setup? either that or his quality has waned

    11. Welcome back Rafinha.

    12. I know that real sociedad is an important game. But can we please rotate intelligently? GalaXI desperately needs rest. Perhaps a lineup consisting of Verma, Bartra, Sergi, Turan, Munir and rafinha.

  11. mr.undercover
    April 6, 2016

    Well. Whatever. Suarez need to calm himself down, I don’t want him to get involve in any kind of trash talk or petulant act. He deserve a red card there, and he should have cost us. Now my main concern is that besquet and mascherano are one card away from missing the next match. I hope LE start varmaelin instead of masche in the second leg. Because he is likely to get a booking than besquet,

    • barca96
      April 6, 2016

      I prefer Bertra over Vermaelin at CB. But who’s going to replace Besquet? Serglin Robertra? Serglin Sempre?

  12. April 6, 2016

    For once Camp Nou sounded like a real home ground, especially in the second half, we could feel the 12th man.
    Those 30 minutes in the second half, any other team other than Atletico would have let in at least 2 or 3 goals. There were some incredible last minute blind defendings.
    Why is Messi looking so dull and unhappy. Is it because he has to play deeper or because of Panama or what else. Cant remember seeing him like this in a big match for long time. His mood seems to be affecting his game, even if we compare an off day of his to an off day of any other player, he is dangerous by many miles, but his standard lines are set so high, we feel terrible.
    Cant wait for the second leg. Will LE take a leaf out of Simeone today and waste nearly 30 plus minutes.

  13. Tata2
    April 6, 2016

    Last thing I want to see next week is we going to the Vincente Calderon (with the ‘we attack no matter the result mentality’) and attacking recklessly leaving our backyard exposed to counter attacks. We go through if it ends scoreless or in a draw, they are the ones that need to come out to get a goal by all means not us.

  14. Lord Eddard Stark A.K.A BrichimbrodvOken, the vulnerable one
    April 6, 2016

    .

    This fact needs to be highlighted.

    out of 97 minutes of football, 31 minutes were wasted by atleti – in many creative ways.

    THIRTY ONE FRIGGIN MINUTES!

    A commenter at guardian has elaborated on the above mentioned creativity of atleti, which is the only sort of creativity you will see from the team.

    “What a wide variety of football skills we saw from Atletico this evening.

    Picking the ball up after you’ve conceded a free-kick and then throwing it away from where the kick needs to be taken in order to waste time.

    Refusing to retreat when the opposition have got a free-kick in order to waste time.

    Pretending to be surprised when the referee penalises you for not retreating from a free-kick and arguing with him in order to waste time.

    Placing the ball in the wrong place when you’ve got a free-kick so that the referee has to tell you to put it in the right place in order to waste time.

    Then pretending to be surprised when the referee tells you to take it from the right spot.

    Then the original kick taker suddenly decides to run up field, so that someone else can take the free-kick, to waste more time.

    Then the new kicker moves the ball away from the correct spot, so the referee has to tell him to put it back again.

    The new kicker pretends to be surprised about that, complains and argues about it.

    Then the new kicker takes an inordinate amount of time over taking the free-kick, pretending to wave people forwards up the field, in order to waste more time.

    Complaining to the referee every single time he makes a decision in order to waste time and break the game up.

    Complaining to the referee every single time he doesn’t make a decision in your favour.

    Tactical fouling in order to break the game up, but taking it in turns to get bookings so no-one (else) gets sent off.

    Committing really bad fouls on the opposition, which the referee is scared to give a red card for as every member of your time and the manager have already (with no justification whatsoever) continually moaned about refereeing decisions all evening (and no doubt will after the game).

    Of course, when Atletico players are tackled in a way that couldn’t possibly hurt a pensioner, they have to pretend that they’ve been mortally wounded to waste more time and amplify their (baseless) sense of injustice over Torres’ (completely correct) sending off.

    Finally, rolling around on the floor pretending that you’re injured in order to waste time.

    What a masterclass.”

    • Davour
      April 6, 2016

      Nice overview of a cynical approach that I really think they overdid this time, without much penalty. We can add their throw-ins, to which Juanfran slowly walked, dried his hands a zillions times, hesitated again and again, stoping to point, then perhaps throwing.

      I understand they support this by pointing to Torres’ sending off – but this is a pattern I can’t really admire, despite them being good at it. It’s not really the sport, to me.

    • G6O
      April 6, 2016

      They actually started wasting time even before the second yellow, almost immediately after they scored.

  15. Laurentiu88
    April 6, 2016

    well, we knew this will be a tough game. looking back over the highlights i have to say we created so many chances, very unfortunate for Neymar not to have scored at leas once…

  16. PPos
    April 6, 2016

    Suarez, the evil genius. I’m glad he didn’t get sent off, because unlike Torres, he can me smart about his fouling. Torres was on a collision course with the referee since he decided to argue against his first yellow card. El Nino deserved to be sent off. Football isn’t tacking out the standing leg of the opposition. Honestly, after Atletico scored, I was ready to cry. Barcelona was out of rhythm. Messi wasn’t his usual brilliant self, but fatigue will do that to you. It takes out the spark. This team thoroughly needs a rest for the next 3 days. Anoeta is going to be difficult, but some rotation will be necessary. Let Munir have a run around, and rafihna and Ugh Arda Turan. Turan should be sold this summer, he hasn’t done anything to convince me that he deserves to be part of this Barcelona squad. All he does is gather yellow cards, and disrupts the flow in midfield. He should make room for Paul Pogba who wants to come to barcelona and potentially could be Yaya Toure 2.0 for Barcelona. This was a game that came down to the team not losing its head, and continue their relentless drive for goal. Ney was miles ahead of the Ney that played against RM. I believe he will shine this weekend and get out of this slight funk he’s experiencing. To me today, was about Suarez making up for his miss at the Clasico. It was a similar finish for the first goal that unlike at the weekend, he capitalized like a real 9. All this team needs is a rest. This was our 53 match of the season that the front three has disputed almost week in and out. Now, I hope that Wolfsburg makes Re-al Ma-drid sweat blood out there today, and VISCA EL BARCA

    • barca96
      April 6, 2016

      No Yaya Toure 2.0 please. So you want to replace a 30m jogger which we will definitely sell for less than that and buy a jogger that’s 50-70m more expensive? No thanks.

    • barca96
      April 6, 2016

      Give Turan at least until the summer of 2017. He is a good player but just doesn’t fit our system. Give him time to learn and besides learning the system, he also needs to learn the work rate.

  17. barca96
    April 6, 2016

    I don’t Know. Messi was definitely not at his best but like during el Clasico, I thought he was average. Nothing to complain about. What I would complain is his positioning. The middle part is so cramped. Very hard for him to dribble through although he did manage to do it but he’s so much more effective down the wing. I thought he and/or Lucho would take note from el Clasico but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  18. mr.undercover
    April 7, 2016

    I don’t think messi playing in the middle is the problem, the real problem is his decision making. He made poor decisions in the last 2 games, he dribbled where he should not dribble, and hesitates when giving passes! Looks dull and slows the flow of the game to some extent. I hope he raise his game now. The team is in need of him

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