It had to be this way. There was too much at stake for it to be any other way. People said this Liga match, a face off between first and second in the table, was for the Liga. It was an extraordinary match in every way, decided by the most extraordinary one of them all, in a moment of sheer excellence so virtuosic as to take your breath away.
And Atleti got Atleti’d.
1-0. If you look at the run of Atleti results this season, you see it: 1-0. They get a goal then play intelligent, controlling football to secure the victory, making smart attacks but never going all out because well … they don’t have to. They have the goal.
This wonderful match should go a very long way toward helping people understand how remarkable Barça is, even in its flawed state. Once again, a Messi free kick provided the goal for the team. The difference betweeen Las Palmas and Atleti is that the team never got stupid, never forgot where it was and what it was doing, had its big match head on in a way that from top to bottom of the roster of the people who played, is laudable.
It’s easy to snarl about this or that player, to grouse about passes not controlled, passes misplayed, runs not made, who or who else might or not be Barça quality. But this team is spectacular, as much for what it is as what it isn’t — complete. And on a day when so many had them tottering on the precipice, so many had them losing this match today, they played a brilliant game to take a crucial, crucial victory and extend the Liga lead to 8 points with 11 matches left.
Could they still bottle the lead? Absolutely. But this psychological step was immense even as the schedule doesn’t get any easier, with Malaga and then Athletic, sandwiching Chelsea.
Pragmatism has, for years, been considered an epithet in culerville. Playing sensibly, keeping defenders back, absorbing pressure and playing out of it intelligently and with composure has, heretofore, made people snarl. “We aren’t Stoke. What is this nine behind the ball nonsense?” But the team understood what it had to do, and put in work. Suarez was clearing Atleti set pieces, Coutinho tracking back like his life depended on it. Rakitic and Busquets are, from my seat, the best midfield duo in football, fronting the best CB tandem in Pique and Umtiti.
Busquets was life, while Rakitic is excelling in yet another role, after having come to Barça as a player who ran a dazzling Sevilla side. He is a worker bee in Catalunya, making his elegant brilliance subordinate to running after balls, making tackles and putting work. The team got it done today.
And all of this is true even as players such as Gomes entered and were erratic, and Suarez frustrated on the offensive end. The team played as a team rather than the collection of individuals that polluted the pitch at Las Palmas. Everyone played better including a magnificent Iniesta, who is facing a month on the sidelines after damaging his hamstring. My Twitter prediction before the match was that if Iniesta has a good match, Barça will win. And he sparkled.
Atleti wins matches, is in second place because it plays as a unit, where the team comes first. It is extraordinary, and lets them play above the aggregate level of their talent. But — and this is an admitted oversimplification — Diego Simeone is also Argentine Mourinho in that he draws his side up to not lose. They are more adventurous against smaller clubs, but even then, there are always at least nine players behind the ball when the opponent has it, whether it’s Leganes, Eibar or Barça.
Today, Thomas Partey, a player who has been a big part of the team’s winning run with his aggressive, pressing, forward-thinking football, was against Barça another defender. The best things that he does were suborned to the task of making sure Messi didn’t kill Atleti.
Then Messi killed Atleti. Griezmann was made to disappear, and the wonder is that Pique and Umtiti must share pants, since both had Costa in their pockets.
That devotion to team that fueled Atleti, defined Barça today. They knew this wasn’t a day for champagne football, that Atleti wasn’t going to allow it. They knew how Atleti play, knew that because of their conservative approach, they struggle to score from open play as long as you don’t make the kinds of errors that launch their counter. Iniesta danced and controlled, taking a series of hard fouls that eventually saw him off near the end of the first half, but the damage was already done.
Atleti continued to play tight, and in a match that felt old school in that it wws contested in midfield, it was here that the absence of Iniesta was most felt. Andre Gomes came on in the stead of the captain. He was whistled by the Camp Nou denizens with every hesitant, faltering touch, but if you watched him, he put in work. He ran, harassed, passed, controlled, gave it up for the team.
Atleti pressed a little harder, moving forward, but never with the kind of vigor that would leave them open to a move and a goal that would effectively kill the match. And Barça played smart, And calm. Atleti pressed, Barça absorbed and came back punching, using Messi as the spearhead to move the ball forward, or pinging the ball up the wings as Atleti focused on not letting Messi kill them.
And when Coutinho finally had run his legs off in a fine, fine performance, it was as if Valverde was trolling Barça supporters by bringing on Paulinho, right as the match was beginning to tilt Atleti’s way. Once again, Paulinho, for whatever reason anyone wants to choose or refuse to acknowledge, the match tilted Barça’s way, and they were able to successfully see out the result, an effort once again defined by the ethereal majesty of Lionel Messi.
Simeone said that if Messi wore an Atelti shirt, it would have been 1-0 the other way. He’s right. The free kick that Messi struck, beating the man many consider the best keeper in La Liga and one of the best in the world, was amazing. It had swerve, curve and enough pace to get past an outstretched Oblak, who guessed right, but it was too much shot. As with the Las Palmas goal, when Messi strode up to take it, you knew it was going in.
For all the talk of Messidependencia last season, this season it is true, but in an odd way. The team is a support system that is capable of taking the reins, playing football and making the system work until such time as Messi decides to take over. It reminds you of the triangle offense that the Chicago Bulls ran, until Michael Jordan decided it was deviation time. This Barça team doesn’t think, “Save us, Messi,” but they do ask the question, “Are you ready to take this?” If he isn’t, they roll on. If he is, off he goes.
As one of the fools who doubted him, who expected his legs and bones to evince some signs of mortality, it’s easy to look in the mirror and think, “Fool, fool!” Messi might be at the peak of his powers, at a time when most players are beginning a precipitous decline toward the gold watch years. Teams play him differently around the box, because of the understanding of what his free kicks can do. They can’t bite on his runs, because he is also a visionary passer. And when they sit back for the pass, he can kill with the run.
His mastery of the game is also psychological. After his free kick goal he ran straight to Paulinho for a gleeful embrace, smiling in the arms of the man people think kicked their puppy, and owes them money. He gave Gomes a long hug after the match. Messi understands that this team isn’t good enough not to need everyone to see this through.
Valverde said after the match that he has run out of ways in which to describe how remarkable Messi is. We all have. He ran, dribbled, tracked back, pressed, harried, helped out. He was part of the team that knew how it had to play, that knew it had to out Atleti Atleti, who were the masters at being Atleti.
Ter Stegen made no saves today, because he didn’t need to. This is a match that could easily have ended in zeroes, except for one moment so stuffed with genius the mind boggles, like a glitter bomb amid a mud-slaked battlefield. Both teams knew what was at stake, both teams worked as hard as they could. But at the end of it all, genius did what it does, which is to define the day, and the moment.