Atleti 1, Barça 1, aka “Stalemate, and a ray of light”

It had to be Dembele. If you are writing the script for this match, it could only have been Dembele. At almost the end of 90 minutes of high drama that had more than one culer sweating a result, it had to be Dembele, the willowy man with the shy smile and the big, giant foot. It just had to be at the end of a stultifying slog of a match that one team did everything it could to choke the life out of.

As Busquets said on BeIN Sport after the match, only one team came to play football today. But making such a statement a damning one would be to deny what Atleti does. They play everyone like they played Barça today, closing down shop, deciding that at abolute worst, a 0-0 draw is fine.

They sit deep, hope for counters or set pieces, and play not to concede. Possession? Nope. Passing? Only to get the ball out of danger. That it works often enough for them to sit second in the table (for now) is because negative football is almost always effective. It is only against the top teams, such as Barça, that the formula doesn’t work. Today was no exception.

This was a compelling match to witness for what was at stake, as there wasn’t a lot of football on display. Barça kept control and stroked it around, probing for weaknesses, and Atleti just sat deep, everyone behind the ball, parrying anything that remotely resembled danger. When something was about to happen that they couldn’t control, such as a Messi run, or someone running onto a ball, they just fouled. And that was that. Tactical fouls? Sure, if you want. But Atleti played their match today, and dependent upon your sense of beauty and football justice or no, you will think the result was fair, or that they didn’t even deserve a draw.

From my chair, a top team playing like a relegation candidate doesn’t sit well, even as Simeone watched Betis, saw how poor Barça was, saw how they still almost got a result — saw Real Madrid try to play open against a Barça that showed up — and thought better about trying anything other that what he always does. That is the team that he built, just as Valverde showed up with the team that he built.

Social media, or course, burst into flames beginning with the lineup of Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Vidal, Sergi Roberto, Arthur, Messi, Suarez. There was talk of Valverde trying to out-Simeone Simeone, and the like, talk that was, frankly absurd. The two teams could not have been more diametrically opposed in the approach to the game. But Valverde has an additional cross to bear. He can’t do anything right.

His team was loose and open against Betis, shipping four goals in appalling, slack fashion. And people hated it. Where was the defense? Why can’t he stop leaking goals? Today against the second-placed team in Liga, his team not only came to play, but was tight at the back. That wasn’t right, either, in the world of Goldilocks Barça. No leaked goals, but where was the swashbuckling, the glitter bombs? Ask Atleti.

Meanwhile, there were two goals scored, both of odd provenance. The genesis for the Atleti goal came as another fiery personality, Vidal, did what yet another firebrand, Arda Turan, did against yet another Madrid team: give up a stupid foul in a dangerous position. The subsequent set piece, led to a corner, in which Diego Costa made a smart, aggressive run to find himself 1v1 against Rafinha (subbed on for the injured Sergi Roberto). Header goal.

Yes, Ter Stegen has been better this season. But anyone who thinks he had a chance against that header should watch it again. Many will be curious about what Pique was doing during the goal, standing there at the center of proceedings with nobody to mark. Was it a blown assignment? Surely if Pique is the one at that far post, no goal happens. It was, without question, a well-taken goal, and one typical of the Atleti kind of match. Shut everything down, get a set piece, score, take the three points.

But this was Barça, a team with a bevy of attacking options on the bench. Dembele came on right after the goal, and almost immediately created danger. Then Malcom came on and suddenly, everything was darty and quick, and space was created. As with their goal, the Dembele tally also was the result of a defensive miscue, after an exquisite Messi nutmeg to set it up. And it was a goal pretty much out of nothing. Messi was down from his usual standard, and Suarez was converted into an island by an Atleti defense determined to not let him do anything. It was up to the subs.

Ousmane Dembele has had a hard month. Sport and Mundo Deportivo, the two Barça-centric sporting dailies, want him run out of town on a rail. Arsenal, Liverpool, the list of potential destinations goes on. He is a video game addict and a slacker, and look at what he wore to sit in the stands at the Betis match. What is wrong with him? Imcomplete quotes are posted that take shots at his professionalism. Was he sick, or wasn’t he? Returning from international duty, he had to run a gauntlet of media critters shoving microphones in his face, many of the same ones who did him wrong in bile-soaked despatches. His coach called the media treatment of his player “cruel,” an understatement.

When that ball fell to Dembele, everything was on the line. It had to be him. And he calmly, preternaturally calmly, waited, then smoked home past Oblak for the equalizer. Consider how many young players would have snatched at that shot, would have overthought it, or smacked it directly at Oblak or a defender. Dembele just picked his spot, and bang. And the grin was massive, the grin of a man who, at the end of a crappy work week, finds a wad of cash on the street, then runs into a friend who wants to buy him dinner. That kind of smile. And it was wonderful.

The grim, singular joylessness of Barçaa Twitter found precious little in this match. Valverde waited too long to make the subs, the team could have won, a view that rules out so much, including counter potentials, as if the Griezmann-led one a bit before their goal didn’t make a lot clear. But in the game of football retrospect, everything will always be 20/20. A “manager with no balls” wouldn’t have come on with a pair of attackers, would have stayed the course and hoped for a bit of Messi or Suarez genius to bail him out, wouldn’t have taken the risk of lost possession putting his team two down, out of reach and hope.

Risk and reward. Sub Dembele on earlier, and maybe he loses a ball that costs a goal. Maybe. Put he and Malcom on and maybe the lack of defense from both of them mean an Atleti counter finds four attackers for Barça at the other end, watching. Everything is perfect when you don’t consider all the options. It’s even easier when you have nothing at stake, and none of us have anything at stake, so our coaching decisions can be perfect.

Yet Valverde made a bold decision in chasing that match, the decision that he had to make. And he got the subs right. Again. Rafinha brought control and work rate, putting out in the exact same way with the exact same effect, only he brought a bit more thrust to the proceedings than Sergi Roberto. Malcom brought ball skills, quickness and uncertainty. Dembele of course, brought what he always brings, it seems: points. His interventions have directly resulted in seven points gained for his team this season, which is a pretty gool number for a player that some sporting press outlets want to see run out of town.

This match wasn’t pretty. It was never going to be. Only the misguided would have expected, at the Wanda, anything except an Atleti performance against Barça. And that’s what happened. Neutrals? Sorry, this isn’t your day. Smart ones knew that and probably just decided to check the final score. But as high drama, this match was amazing, edge-of-the-cushions stuff, because it was, at least for a weekend, everything. The winner would draw the spoils.

When Atleti went ahead and time was dwindling, people expected the inevitable. 1-0 at home. It’s what Atleti does. But Barça has too much talent for that, too many ballers, too many players who can make a difference. A Barça coach playing a big away match tight isn’t a shock. Guardiola, Vilanova, Martino, Luis Enrique all did it. To excoriate Valverde for doing what coaches do is misguided.

And there will be more rage against Valverde than Atleti, who as a top team played like a minnow. Yes, it’s what they do, but is it a champion’s mentality? Good question. Barça displayed their credentials, fighting back and controlling almost every minute of the match. And that is beautiful, even if the football wasn’t.

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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.