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.