On a Saturday that started with an ocular canker sore of a match in Liverpool, as Jose Mourinho once again proved the “value” of playing not to win, the same day that Manchester City caused orgasmic spasms by knocking seven goals past a powerhouse Stoke side, the biggest match of the day for some held massive promise.
The coaches traded gustatory quips, but there was much at stake here for Barça’s first visit to a stadium called Wanda and ultimately, much to be learned from a result that flattered whichever team a given supporter’s narrative wanted.
Atleti supporters will say that had Griezmann been more clinical and Ter Stegen less adroit, the match would have been over in the first half.
Barça supporters will say that had Suarez showed up to play a full match and Messi been given the penalty that he justly deserved, their team would still be rolling on a winning streak.
Reality is that on a day during which a heavy-legged, mostly drab Barça played like a shadow of the businesslike team that did what it had to do until that match, effort and willingness sapped by international duty, they showed what many already knew: Atleti isn’t as good as Barça, on paper or on the pitch.
The biggest problem for Barça is a lackluster first half, was possession — more correctly, lack thereof. Sloppiness with the ball led to chance after chance for a team that still has a difficult time scoring goals. Laxity, and Raktic taking a pair of gambles that both came up snake eyes allowed Saul to stroke in a golazo, a magnificent, curving beast of a thing that gave Ter Stegen not a chance in hell. It was 1-0, the Wanda was roaring, and everything seemed a mess for Barça as everyone picked their chosen fiend, leaving Rakitic and Andre Gomes neck-and-neck.
Reality is that neither of them were as bad as most of the team was. Jordi Alba was brain dead, nobody was moving to passes, preferring to wait for the ball to arrive, which played right into the hands of a ball-hawking Atleti defense. Suarez stumbled around like a drunk looking for his car keys, which left the only real option to be Messi, running at a pasel of Atleti defenders in the center of the pitch, something that was never going to work.
Iniesta was sparking with the ball at his feet, but leaden without it as Atleti found playing space both in the center and on Alba’s side, as they quickly figured that trying Semedo would bring little joy. Umtiti was dazzling, for a time looking like a lone bulwark at the back, and Barça stood firm, thanks to Griezmann being the really good player that he is, instead of the elite player that many believe he is.
Valverde came at Atleti with the odd decision to run Andre Gomes out on the right side of proceedings. And while he wasn’t as terrible as legend would have it, he didn’t add much either in an XI that raised eyebrows for a pair of notable absences in Sergi Roberto and Denis Suarez. There are, naturally, two ways to look at any situation, even as reality was that it was next to impossible to parse any individual performances when the entire attack was flat, much to Atleti’s pleasure.
Even if halftime didn’t bring about the subs that many were craving, it did bring about a Barça that seemed to have relearned the value of possession and ball control. As soon as they stopped giving gifts to Atleti, the tide of the match turned. Messi found a bit of space, ball and players moved with greater purpose and alacrity and Atleti found itself in a familiar role of being bunkered in as little people caused consternation. Then Valderde completely changed the match.
Sergi Roberto and Gerard Deulofeu were substituted, both to quite dramatic effect as things got even more dire for Atleti. Sergi Roberto showed the intelligenge and industriousness that make him invaluable, placing a flawless pass on the head of Luis Suarez, a ball so good that it was impossible to mess up, and it was 1-1 with Barça on the front foot.
People muttered about the subs coming too late, about the two difference makers starting instead of subbing, forgetting that if they started, Deulofeu against the fresh legs and brains that might have neutralized his advantage, and Sergi Roberto would have been playing right back instead of Semedo. And who, then, are the difference makers to bring off the bench? Valverde played that one right, and his subs made a difference, even Paulinho coming in to calm things down in midfield, enhancing the control and opportunities that Barça was creating against a by then fully battened-down Atleti.
Deulofeu found joy in the slightly tired legs of the Atleti defenders, using his pace and ball skills to unsettle, eventually leading the break that had the winning goal at the feet of he and Andre Gomes. But the turf and Luis Suarez didn’t cooperate as the ball from Gomes took an unruly hop on the cabbage patch called Wanda, as the groundskeepers functioned as a twelfth man. Simeone had the grass mowed as soon as the match ended, feeling like the tactical battle of the turf had been won.
Messi hit the crossbar with a free kick and should have had a penalty, as he was fouled twice in the box, but Lahoz was uninterested in anything denying him a clear view of a rapid-fire play that confounded even the slo-mo replays at home, until there was an angle found that made the infraction clear. Both teams played well enough to win and lose.
Barça can’t be a crap team with only Messi as a player who is any good, then have failed to get the win against Atleti, a fantastic team. Pick one. The coach, an idiot for many supporters, again made the right subs to turn the tide in a match, and almost pull out a win. Atleti is good. Really good. Barça wasn’t better or even equal to them for most of the match. But for the period that mattered, a period defined by almost complete match control from Barça, we’re left to wrestle with some interesting thoughts, notably the notion that Barça and its coach might both be better than we thought.
As people wonder about the technical side of a game, the formations that make a team so difficult to score or concede, laying the first half performance at school figures instead of ass moving, here is something else to consider: We all watch a lot of football, and are smart enough to be able to talk about the game, about positions and what athletes might be better for them, but we don’t have a years in coaching, don’t understand players, don’t see them in training.
Sure, we can have fun speculating. Why not. But we stil have no real skin in the game, and hardly any knowledge compared to the man who is coaching the football team that we love. He will get some stuff wrong, get some stuff right. But there his team is, five points ahead of its eternal rival, with a very difficult match in the rear view mirror. Dunno about you, but some of us are giddy.